Piper, Frost, and Hirsch

I’ve long been a fan of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost. Their book, The Shaping of Things to Come inspired me toward exploring a missional approach to missiology. I know these men personally, and they are some of the most thoughtful, articulate, and creative thinkers around.

John Piper recently wrote a post on the Desiring God blog blasting Frost and Hirsch for a section in their newest book, The Faith of Leap, that suggests that God took a risk in entrusting His mission to humanity. I encourage everyone to read both the book and Piper’s rebuke.

It would be more than Piper did.

Piper’s post was accompanied by a short video of him explaining his motivation for writing. In that video, he explains that “the guys at Desiring God” had asked him to to respond to the paragraph in question. He hasn’t read the book, or apparently, the paragraph in context. This is not helpful.

Clearly, this is a part of Desiring God’s media strategy- generate controversy by having John Piper “respond” to out-of-context excerpts in an effort to generate traffic on their site. I’m sure it worked, because here I am writing about the whole thing.

I’m frustrated with John Piper’s MacArthurian need to condemn and repudiate what others are saying. Hirsch and Frost are not part of a movement to deny God’s sovereignty, and we don’t need Piper to be our watchdog. Furthermore, as with his Tweet about Rob Bell, he continues to come off like a mean old man rather than a wise and loving shepherd. Heaven forbid the man should ask a question rather an assuming he understands which heresy box everyone else falls into.

Nevertheless, John Piper is right about The Faith of Leap. In the first chapter, Frost and Hirsch express a desire for what they refer to as a “theology of risk.” They explain that traditional evangelicalism doesn’t have much room for the idea that God takes something of a risk in his relationship with humanity. They are right- there isn’t room for that.

God took no real “risk” in determining to use human means to spread His gospel. There’s no risk because there’s no chance beyond His control that his mission might fail. God will accomplish His purposes, and He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. If His plans depended on us, they would certainly fail. If the eternal destiny of the nations depends on us, they have no hope. That is the good news, after all, that our hope is not in our own works nor in the faithfulness of others, but in the completed work of Jesus on the cross.

So when Frost and Hirsch say that God seems to have taken something of a risk on us, they’re wrong. Except that they are exploring the tension that the church inevitably finds on mission: despite God’s sovereignty, I am free to disobey. And I do disobey (usually not intentionally, mind you). If God has elected to save an individual and I have the opportunity to be the means by which He reveals Himself to that man, I can opt out.

Let’s be clear- opting out isn’t a wise or safe thing to do. As my friend, Michael Carpenter points out over at his blog, just ask Jonah. When we fail to follow God’s leadership, be it out of rebellion or ignorance, we miss out. We miss the blessing of doing exactly what we were saved to do.

Which is why Piper’s critique rings hollow; condemning the idea of risk without acknowledging the tension between God’s sovereignty and my depravity is disingenuous. Frost and Hirsch aren’t trying to write a new theology, they’re exploring the “foolishness” (by human standards) of a God who would choose to use imperfect messengers like us to call the world to Himself.

John Piper and Frost/Hirsch aren’t coming from the same perspective (theological or otherwise.) But Piper would do well to read Frost and Hirsch. It might help him reconsider his divisively abstract and distractingly ambiguous standard of “that which brings God the most glory.”

A better way to handle the situation would have been to sit down with the authors and ask them about the offending paragraph. Desiring God went to the trouble of filming a video, why not include a bit of a response from Alan and Mike?

17 thoughts on “Piper, Frost, and Hirsch

  1. I’ve never understood why Piper feels the need to defend God against well-meaning, intelligent Christians. His approach seems to me to say: God needs John Piper to say God doesn’t “need” anyone!

    I have not read the Frost/Hirsch book. I might someday – it sounds interesting.

    I wonder if they are exploring the nature of stories. Everywhere I turn, it seems, Christian leaders are talking about God’s relationship with each person like a story. I think it plays into how important narratives are in postmodernism.

    Great stories need risk.

  2. Ernest –
    Piper practicing MacArthurian polemics is spot on.

    The irony is palpable. We all are aware of the way he took the occasion to help Mark Driscoll moderate his use of language. Who could come to Piper’s aid? Risk.

    Sit down with Frost and Hirsch? Really. Not if he follows D.A. Carson’s approach to critique. Reading is all that is needed to do in order to “know” what kind of critique is deserved. Risk.

    Risk – considering the options you shared or the idea that someone could help Piper see a more gracious way, if at least to read the book, – would well fit a good definition.

  3. Great post. I have been frustrated with the direction Piper has gone recently with his leadership. After spending quite a bit of time talking with Frost in the past I immediately called foul on Pipers video. To me as soon as you say ‘I haven’t read the book but (insert criticism here)’ your opinion matters little too me and worse your credibility goes down the toilette. Great point on the response from frost and hirssch, but I fear the “M.O.” for Piper’s camp of late is shoot now and ask questions later. So here is my question:

    Does the very clear instruction we have in Matthew 18 apply here? Ie. Why doesn’t Piper pick up the phone and call Alan Hirsch and give him the opportunity to explain/make right his statements?

    Do we get a free pass from Biblical Confrontation because it is on the Internet?

  4. I’ve not read Alan and Hirsch’s book, so I cannot comment on the context or even the content of the paragraph in question.

    However, I feel as though you’re being a bit quick to criticize Piper here, and, a bit harshly. Incidentally, I also feel like you’re being a bit harsh on MacArthur as well.

    As fellow brothers and family members in Christ, isn’t it our duty and obligation to one another, to always assume positive intentions? To receive all criticism and commentary with the assumption that the critic/commentator has good intentions? And while I realize that more often than not, our critics/commentators have bad intentions, shouldn’t we at least give them the benefit of the doubt? Innocent until proven guilty right? Especially for those also in the covenant?

    To accuse Piper and the folks at DG of trying to generate publicity/traffic by creating some form of a scandal seems ungracious, and un-Christlike. Yes, I understand the sarcasm in your statement, I do realize that you don’t literally and seriously think that, this was the intent of Piper and DG, to generate traffic, but, the intent of your statement seems to have been to insult and/or mock.

    This also goes for referring to Piper and by implication MacArthur, as a “mean old man” (though admittedly in some of his recent blog posts about the YRR movement, that’s pretty much how MacArthur comes off).

    What I’m trying to say, is that while I’m not sure of your intent, from my perspective as a first-time visitor to your blog, your blog post comes off as highly ironic. You seem to be critiquing Piper for being too quick to criticize Alan and Hirsch, especially without having studied or even read their book. Towards the end you seem to imply that the correct code of conduct would have involved, Piper reaching out to the authors for some clarification before resorting to this form of public correction.

    Amen! Absolutely! That is a brilliant model for how to handle disagreements with an author’s premise/argument. This is something we see Kevin DeYoung do in his disagreement with Jack Collins on his book on Adam and Eve. (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/07/28/adam-and-eve-follow-up-a-dialogue-with-jack-collins/)

    You also seem to be assuming Piper’s motives, or at least that’s how it comes off to me. For me the tone of this blog post (which is a perilous statement to make, since this is a blog… and tone is dangerous to interpret without actually having… a tone of voice to go off of…) is a sort of tone that implies, “Piper just doesn’t get it/me/us/this.” It comes off as unnecessarily defensive. From my perspective, when I read Piper’s post, or watched the accompanying video, it doesn’t come off to me as a critique of Alan and Hirsch’s book, but rather that single specific statement and what it implies. While I understand, and agree, that Piper should have read the entire book FIRST, before critiquing the paragraph, and do appreciate that you acknowledge that Piper’s critique is correct if one accepts his non-contextual interpretation of the paragraph, I feel that your blog post comes off as too hostile/defensive towards Piper and his post.

    I think Piper (and also I think MacArthur) is writing more in reaction to what they’ve seen in their lifetimes. With their age comes the wisdom of experience and history, I think Piper is reacting to the previous movements of Christianity over the decades of the past that gained popularity, influence, and even sparked the creation of churches/Christianity without any semblance of doctrine or even biblical faithfulness, e.g. the Emergent movement, the extreme Charismatic movements, etc. Having witnessed the destructive power of bad theology/incorrect conceptions of God, I think Piper is passionately (perhaps a bit overzealously at times), ensuring that pastors and teachers, are teaching correct and sound doctrine, thus to avoid the mistakes of the past. Just as Calvin and Luther were reacting in response to the Catholic church of their day.
    On a related note, I think MacArthur is reacting to the decadence/liberalism/alcoholism that he witnessed going through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Hippies, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, etc. And thusly he is so critical of pastor’s who drink, don’t wear suits and ties, etc.

    Again, this is my first time on your blog, so maybe I’m way off here, I just thought that as a first time visitor to your blog you might want to know that your post, at least to me, comes off as highly hostile, defensive, and critical, of Piper and those other “mean old men”, rather than a critique of Piper’s actual statement … which I suppose is hard to do, since you agree with his statement to a degree.

    D.A. Carson elaborates brilliantly on what, I think, is fueling alot of this conflict/disagreement between the parties, namely Generational conflict in ministry.


    If I’m way off the base here, I am really very sorry, and I do want to understand if I’ve made any mistakes/misinterpretations about your statements. Thanks and God Bless!

  5. David,
    I’m sorry you found my post to be too harsh. I’m not trying to pick on John Piper.
    I generally try to select my words carefully. For example, I wrote that Piper, “continues to come off like a mean old man…” I’m not saying that he is, in fact, a mean old man, but rather that he comes across as one. Based on his public comments (like this one the the others if refer to in the post), I’m convinced he truly doesn’t grasp the power of social media and the far-reaching ramifications of public comments like this. Without having read the book, Piper (at the request of his Desiring God staff) “repudiates” the philosophy that he ascribes to Frost and Hirsch. As I wrote, “this is not helpful.”

    I’ll be frank: Alan and Mike are friends. With a flippant remark, John Piper could seriously damage the reputations of these men and undermine their ministries (especially among a certain audience). That sarcasm you read in my post? You’re right- that’s me being defensive.

    I’m in the communications business myself, so my comment about this being part of the Desiring God communications strategy is based on what I see. It’s not about Piper’s motives (I believe he’s genuinely trying to warn the church against bad doctrine), it’s about the marketing. They are clearly capitalizing on Piper’s gifts of discernment and ability to communicate in order to draw attention to the website. Believe it or not, I don’t have a problem with that. I just wish they’d use the platform and the generated controversy to promote thoughtful discussion rather than condemnation and “repudiation.”

    I think you’re right: Piper and MacArthur are responding to what they see as dangerous trends. I’m doing the same here in response to the frustrating trend of esteemed and wise fathers in the faith who insist on publicly scolding and labeling people they’re not familiar with in a medium they’re not familiar with for out-of-context excerpts. These men are losing credibility with every attack.

    Which brings me to my motive in writing the post (and this comment): I think the church greatly benefits from the teachings and wisdom of John Piper, Alan Hirsch, Mike Frost, and John MacArthur. I want them all to know that in this interconnected and instant world, they must be willing to engage one another in dialog. Otherwise, the evangelical world will write them off as mean old men.

    For starters, they could allow comments on their blogs…

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  8. Sigh…I’m tired…

    I read Piper’s statement when it came…I will not tell you my first thoughts, but subsequent thoughts was this is an full-own expression of missing the the point. And I haven’t (and probably won’t, no offense to Frost & Hirsch) read the book. But I know Alan and I’ve read Frosty…

    I really think Piper is being used…being used to get traffic to the website, to keep Piper’s name in the headlines, to prop up many in the neo-reformed.

    Controversy is a way to make ourselves feel important. That’s the only way McArthur is still relevant I’m afraid…

    It is also obvious Piper has never talked with Frost/Hirsch.

    It would be far better to spend time talking about what we are for than what we are against. I know, I know, some people think their job is to be the heresy hunters, but really…It’s not as though they are denying the Trinity or subordinating Jesus like some people do, right?

    Sigh…I’m tired…

    Ok, I’ll just go back to my neck of the woods now…

  9. Ernest, great response both in the post and your comment. I have read the book, and Piper has no chance of responding appropriately by reading only one single paragraph, it is just plain laziness. It is probably not even worthy of a response, but I am glad you did ;-)

  10. David (not Phillips) –

    I was chatting with a friend about this. He made the point that those with high profile personalities appear to be absent peers who are willing to also use social media outlets to suggest, “[Piper in this case] crossed a line, went too far.” Had anyone else said that the Twitterverse, FB, and other sites would have blown up. But, because Piper said it – his celeb status keeps those kinds of moves at bay. This has been the same with MacArthur. Would that those with something of a “preferred status” would have peers who would be as quick to call out as they are to applaud.

    Ernest, in my opinion, has not been disingenuous. Instead, he offers a perspective as someone who respects Piper and knows Frost and Hirsch. His contention that a conversation would have been good if you are only going to review a paragraph seems the least that could be done. That the GC website asked Piper to review only a paragraph creates the unseemly move to drive traffic to a site. Negative reviews/comments create more traffic and buzz than positive comments. That is the nature of the web – and especially in Christian circles.

    Ernest –
    Sadly, Carson set the standard of “not talking” to those whom he will critique. Given and open invitation to sit down with several he singled out in Becoming Conversant with Emergent, he declined noting what has been written is enough to form an opinion and give critique. Piper merely takes it to the extreme – read a paragraph and critique with a video.

    Maybe another Sabbatical is in order.

  11. Todd,
    Thank you. I don’t claim to be a peer of Piper or MacArthur, but your point is well made- having respect for someone doesn’t mean (blind) “yes”-ing everything they say. If those of us who know Frost and Hirsch won’t let Piper know that his warning didn’t apply to their actual beliefs or teachings, who would?

    Carson broke a web “rule” that I imagine he did not (and still does not) know existed. In this connected world, you can’t just lob condemnations someone’s way without expecting some back-and-forth interaction. Doing so makes it look like you really don’t care about the people involved, don’t understand the situation, and aren’t willing to be part of a solution. Someone needs to write out these “rules” and send them to these guys.

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  13. To be fair, Piper did qualify his statements by a.) making quite clear he didn’t read the book and b.) inserting “The view of God embodied in this quote from Hirsch and Frost is…” He’s not (necessarily) taking Frost and Hirsch to the mat. Rather, he’s taking issue with that specific quote, a quote not pieced together or taken out of context (yes, I’ve read the book in early June, well before the DG post). Piper didn’t offer up a book review, but was addressing the content of a specific paragraph. I thought it was perfectly legit.

    Part of the price one pays when you publish a book is the right to have it openly critiqued. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to read an entire book before offering clear critique on a specific passage taken in context. If people don’t want their books critiqued (including sections, paragraphs, or chapters), then they shouldn’t write. (I do hope Frost/Hirsch welcome such critique!)

    And the “Piper seems to come off like a mean old man” comment? He’s been doing this for years! This is not onset by his age. On the contrary, I thought the video found him to be rather warm-hearted, not some cold prickly old man.

    If Frost/Hirsch think Piper’s legitimately off base, they should respond, clarifying their position (even noting at what points Piper’s assessment is correct!). It would be great to have some healthy, robust dialogue from all parties.

  14. Michael,
    How is it possible to take a specific passage in context without actually reading the book? For a quote like that, the context is the rest of the book.
    The problem is that many Piper fans, upon reading the critique, will immediately discount everything Frost and Hirsch have to say. With one post, John Piper has done damage to their reputations and credibility. Could they respond? Yes. But where? Will John Piper provide the forum?

    Publishing a book does put the ideas into the public realm. I’m fine with reviews, critical or otherwise. I appreciate the engagement of ideas (that’s sort of the point of writing a book). But this isn’t that. This is cheap. Watch my blog, I’ll show you what I mean in an upcoming post.

    You’re right; this is not a new thing. John Piper comes across like a mean old man anytime he offers ill-informed, dismissive “critiques” like this one.

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