Published: 21 June 2016 (GMT+10)
A review of A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness
by John Piper
Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2016
Often apologists find themselves looking at historical, text-critical, or archaeological evidence for the trustworthiness of Scripture. And it is useful to note that when Scripture speaks of a person, place, or event, any evidence that has survived the thousands of intervening years corroborates Scripture’s account. But John Piper looks at an element of scriptural proof that sometimes is overlooked—the Bible reveals its own truthfulness, to those who care to look.
John Piper asks: “Is the Bible true? All of it. Is it so trustworthy in all that it teaches that it can function as a test of all other claims of truth?” His book details how the Christian can say yes, “The Bible is completely true” (p. 11).
Piper begins by recounting his conversion, education, and call to the pastorate. His early view of Scripture was clarified and matured as he was confronted with other views in university. And it was ultimately the love of Scripture that led him to the pastorate where he served for over 30 years.
What is the Bible? Is it trustworthy?
We can’t affirm that the Bible is true before we define what the Bible is, and to that end, Piper explains why Protestant Christians have the books in our Old and New Testaments that we do, and explains the Old Testament deuterocanon (books accepted by Roman Catholics as part of their Old Testament, but never by Jews or Protestants). He then defends the 27-book canon of the New Testament.
Some argue that Scripture was inspired, but errors crept in as it was copied repeatedly, so it is important to be able to defend the idea that Scripture was reliably copied over the centuries. Piper ably explains why the Scriptures we have today are faithful copies of the originals.
Having examined the extent of the canon and the reliability of the transmission of the biblical documents, Piper examines Scripture’s claims about itself. The Old Testament claims to be the Word of God; Jesus affirmed that it was the Word of God and claimed to be its fulfillment. The New Testament was written by the Apostles along with their direct associates, to whom Jesus gave authority.
Piper explains that Christians do not have to accept the trustworthiness of Scripture on ‘blind faith’; in fact, blind faith is not real faith at all! Rather, it is reasonable to trust in the Bible, because it is inspired by God, who is trustworthy. While it is possible to use sophisticated historical argumentation to prove that the Bible is accurate, one does not need that level of education to be able to have sufficient reason to trust the Bible. Interestingly, he cites Jonathan Edwards, who believed that only faith grounded in reason and conviction could be a proper saving faith.
How can we know the Bible is from God?
Edwards argues (and Piper concurs) that we can know that God is the ultimate author of the Scriptures because of the characteristics of Scripture itself. Piper uses the analogy of knowing an unsigned painting is by Rembrandt by its interplay of darkness and light that is part of the author’s distinctive style.
Piper then turns to Pascal’s wager, and argues that it is often oversimplified and misapplied:
“It is misleading because it gives the impression that saving faith in God is a choice we make without seeing God as true and compellingly beautiful. The wager says, ‘You do not know if God is really there. God himself is not a reality to you. He is a possibility. … ’” (p. 170).
This line of argumentation is unsurprising to anyone familiar with Piper’s ‘Christian hedonism’. Rather, true faith, according to Piper, is seeing God as compellingly beautiful and true:
“God is seen with the eyes of the heart as truly as the eyes of our head see the sun in the sky. And this sight of the glory of God in Christ compels us. It is no more resistible than the enjoyment of your favorite food is resistible when it is in your mouth. And so it is when God becomes your favorite, by the opening of your eyes to see his convincing and enthralling beauty. To see him as supreme in beauty is to desire him above all” (p. 170).
In fact, Piper shows that Pascal was aware of this problem with his wager, and did not view it as sufficient in and of itself.
In this chapter, Piper revisits a story familiar to many creationists: that of Billy Graham and Charles Templeton. Graham and Templeton experienced doubts about Scripture at around the same time, and Templeton renounced his faith while Billy Graham did not. Piper quotes Graham:
“So I went back and I got my Bible, and I went out in the moonlight. And I got to a stump and put my Bible on the stump. And I knelt down, and I said, ‘Oh, God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck [Templeton] is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this Book by faith as the Word of God” (p. 176).
Of course, on the face of it, it seems like the choice could be between skepticism and fideism if we take Graham and Templeton as the only two options to follow. And it is increasingly impossible to be an effective evangelist in today’s world without being able to answer skeptical questions, since the Internet has given a megaphone to atheists and skeptics. If Graham had been able to answer Templeton’s questions, would that have changed the sad ending to Templeton’s story?
Can the ‘regular person’ have grounds to trust Scripture?
One weakness with Piper’s arguments presented above are that they rely on an academic and historical understanding that would not be accessible to the majority of Christians throughout history, and even today. Piper asks, “How can average people, with no scholarly training and little time to invest in historical studies, know for sure that the Bible is the reliable word of God in all that it teaches?” (p. 182).
The simple answer is that the Holy Spirit testifies to the converted Christian that the Word of God is trustworthy. The Spirit helps us to see Scripture for what it really is. So while historical evidences are apologetically useful and a gift to the Church especially in a skeptical age, it is not necessary for a Christian to know these evidences to trust in Scripture, because the regenerate believer can see the inspiration of Scripture as they encounter Scripture itself.
In Chapter 12, Piper discusses general revelation, and while we would agree with most of what Piper says about it (i.e. it reveals enough of God’s glory that we are accountable for the knowledge we should have gotten from nature, but it’s not enough to save anyone), he seems to attribute a bit too much to general revelation. For instance, he says that one can know from nature, “God sees me as guilty for failing to give him the glory and thanks he deserves, and he thus gives ultimate explanation to the universal, bad conscience in the world” (p. 203). It is hard to see how this follows from purely natural revelation, however. Also, he says we can know, “God might save me from my guilt but would need to do it in a way that overcomes my evil impulse to resist him and would have to make a way for his glory to be sustained, while not punishing me for treason” (p. 203). However, this seems to be something one could only find in special revelation.
We would also differ with how Piper characterizes the difference between natural and special revelation:
“There is a difference in the way God reveals his glory in the creation of nature and the way he reveals his glory in the inspiration of Scripture. There is a difference between the way the sun reveals the glory of God and the way the book of Romans reveals the glory of God. In Romans, what reveals the glory of God is the meaning of the writing, not the material parchment and ink and letters. … Rather, the words that God guided Paul to write are revelatory because these are the chosen instrument of God’s meaning. The sun, on the other hand, is not like the parchment and ink and letters. Only they have such blazing magnitude and beauty that they reveal the glory of God directly, and that is its meaning. God does expect us to look at the ‘solar writing’ and say, ‘What a glorious and good God writes with such fire!’” (p. 208).
However, this doesn’t go far enough. The creation bears witness to God’s existence and power, but Scripture tells us who God is and how we relate to Him. The creation is a witness to God which is distorted both by the Fall and by our fallible perception, while Scripture is God’s inspired revelation of Himself to us.
The unique glory of Jesus
The Old Testament reveals God’s glory because He is distinct from all other gods. “This is the distinguishing glory of God among all the gods: they exalt themselves by demanding to be served; the true God exalts himself in serving those who trust him” (p. 218). Of course, God’s ultimate revelation of Himself in history is of course in the Person of Jesus, the Son Incarnate, and He epitomized this service to His people in His ministry and sacrificial death on the cross.
Jesus’ glory was also manifested in his miracles. Many saw the miracles and did not believe in Jesus, showing that seeing the miracles in and of themselves were not sufficient for belief, but one also must have the right attitude in one’s heart.
Of course, while Jesus humbled Himself in the incarnation and served His people, He retains the glory that is rightfully His as God, and His followers saw a glimpse of that glory in the Transfiguration. Piper explains:
“For one brief moment, the transfiguration broke the pattern of the incarnation. It pulled back the curtain on the future when the glory of Christ would not be clothed in fragile lowliness any longer. … The transfiguration itself becomes a kind of dramatization of the point of the book: it is the peculiar glory of Jesus that awakens and wins our confidence in the truth of Scripture” (p. 248).
The People the Word Creates
Piper concludes by noting the glory of God’s word is displayed in how it transforms the lives of the people of God. “Beholding the glory of the Lord, in the word, we are transformed. So the instrument of change in the human heart is the word of God” (p. 257). Piper shows how the Holy Spirit uses the word to transform the hearts of believers to conform to the image of God, and the way the word works in the life of the believer.
A Peculiar Glory was a quick read for its length. Piper has an engaging, easy-to-read style, and explains fairly complicated concepts in understandable ways. In many ways, this book is ideal for fairly new Christians or anyone who needs a resource to better understand what the Bible is and its role in the life of a believer. A Peculiar Glory is a book that clearly communicates Piper’s love for Scripture and his pastoral concern that Christians have a trust in the Gospel communicated through the Scriptures that is well-grounded.
Knowing that Piper does not embrace a literal interpretation of Genesis, it was hard to reconcile the excellent defense of the trustworthiness of Scripture with this compromising view. Someone who embraced the message of this book consistently would come away trusting all of Scripture, including the creation narrative. That being said, it is clearly possible for someone to have a clear love of Scripture and a fruitful ministry despite having what we would recognize as a deficient view of the doctrine of creation, so that shouldn’t necessarily mean we never recommend books by such authors.
This is a book biblical creationists can embrace as teaching the high view of Scripture we have, even though its author is not a biblical creationist.