Book Review: Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism 

Robert Lewis Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism. Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895. Reprint Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1992. pp. 80.

The year is 1895. Robert Lewis Dabney is 75 years old, and will pass from the earth in just a few years (1898). He had fought his whole life for two main things: Calvinism and white supremacy, and to the last, these topics flow from his pen. His hagio/biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, gives us in two successive paragraphs: “During the year 1895, Dr. Dabney published, through the Presbyterian Committee of Publication, Richmond, Va., his excellent little tract of eighty pages, on the ‘Five Points of Calvinism,’ and contributed occasional articles to the newspapers, notably one or two philippics against the effort to remove Union Theological Seminary from Hampden-Sidney to Richmond” (The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 510–511); “He waged war, by private correspondence, against the removal of Union Theological Seminary. He plead for the retention of the Seminary in Southside Virginia as needed to help the white people in their struggle to prevent their sections being Africanized” (LLD, 511).

Lest anyone object that this is an unfair juxtaposing of two unrelated issues (Calvinism and White Supremacy), note that the man who was a professor of systematic theology and ecclesiastical history at Union Theological Seminary, not only wrote on these two topics at the very same time, but felt that the Theological Seminary would aid in the “struggle” for White Supremacy—theological instruction had an active and constructive role in its maintenance.

Why did I bother reading this book? It came on my radar several years ago, when I saw Desiring God’s post “What are Some Books that DG Recommends?”and Dabney’s book was recommended in the category of “Providence and Predestination.” Recently, it was noticed that the online class on “TULIP: The Five Points of Calvinism” taught by John Piper, and hosted on the TGC website also recommended Dabney’s book on the landing page (it appears that sometime in November 2021, TGC removed this link to Dabney, perhaps in response to this tweet). For awhile now, I’ve been wrestling with this question:“How and why was a white-supremacist like Robert Lewis Dabney commended to my generation as a great theologian to read?!?” As I’m working my way through the material, this one was next.

1618 & 1619

Theologically speaking, the book is mostly unremarkable, just Dabney’s articulation of the five points of Calvinism. Historically, though, I find a number of points of interest. On page 2, he refers to “the famous Synod of Dort,” a church council hosted in the Netherlands in 1618, responding to the Arminians, and formulating “The Five Points” for the first time in that particular form. The very next year, 1619, a Dutch ship would deliver twenty enslaved Africans to the shores of the American colony of Virginia (see W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the Slave Trade, 17). Lest you think Dort is a religious affair, and unrelated the “secular” national interests, remember that in the Netherlands had an official state church, and the two were intertwined, so much so that the State persecuted Arminians, even with the death penalty, for dissenting (Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2: 229–33); see also Gerald F. De Jong, “Dutch Reformed Church and Negro Slavery in Colonial America,” Church History 40.4 (1971): 423–36 | on JSTOR).

A “well-bred [white] lady”

Dabney’s work is sprinkled throughout with illustrations, and several of these highlight the fact that so much of the material for our theology is drawn from our circumstances, and the same is true of Dabney. In his explication of the concept of “Total Depravity” or “Original Sin,” he goes on for several pages with an example: “I suppose that a refined and genteelly reared young lady presents the least sinful specimen of unregenerate human nature” (10; he will later refer to her as “the well-bred young lady” (19)). Knowing Dabney’s context (the 19th century South), and his ideology (white supremacy), including his explicit statements regarding Black people (see “What’s So Bad About R. L. Dabney?”), we can reasonably infer that what he means is “a refined and genteelly reared young [white] lady.” Dabney draws on an explicitly gendered, and implicitly racial, conceptions of Southern Womanhood to illustrate his theological point about sin. And his point here is that even this “least sinful specimen” is indeed “totally depraved” unless she is converted.

Master and Servant

In discussing “free will,” Dabney poses this hypothetical: “If a master would require his servant to do a bodily act for which he naturally had not the bodily faculty, as, for instance, the pulling up of a healthy oak tree with his hands, it would be unjust to punish the servant’s failure” (17). Dabney was born in 1820, grew up in a family that enslaved a number of Black people (Johnson, 18, 24), and directly oversaw them later in his life. No doubt, he found the “master and servant” relationship a ready illustration for this theological points, even thirty years after Emancipation.

A “Rural Sanctuary”

a Southern “rural sanctuary”

In the section explaining “Effectual Calling” (what is otherwise known as the I in TULIP “Irresistible Grace”), Dabney explicitly draws our attention to the ante-bellum South: “Let us suppose that fifty years ago [i.e., 1845] the reader had seen me visit his rural sanctuary, when the grand oaks which now shade it were but lithe saplings” (32). What picture does Dabney want in your mind? Where should you imagine yourself? The stereotypical Southern Plantation, with the Big House off in the distance, and the oak trees recently planted. He blesses the site of so much human horror as a “sanctuary,” its rural setting removed from nosy neighbors or other onlookers affording the occasion for so much human violence unwitnessed by the outside world (for a vivid illustration of this, see the final act of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Simon LeGree’s isolated property). Again, the material used to construct and illustrate the theology is thoroughly situated in Dabney’s context, and it is explicitly the context of ante-bellum (1845) enslavement.

A “wise and righteous general”

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

In the section on “God’s Election” Dabney compares God’s foreknowledge with “a wise and righteous general conducting a defensive war to save his country” (40). It’s hard to miss the allusion to the Confederacy and the Civil War here. Dabney served as an officer in the Confederate Army under General Stonewall Jackson, and published Jackson’s first biography, Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, (Stonewall Jackson) (1866). Dabney regularly refers to Jackon’s “wisdom” and “righteousness,” and holds him up as a shining example of Christian character (for more on this see Daniel W. Stowell, “Stonewall Jackson and the Providence of God,” in Religion and the American Civil War, edited by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson (1998)). Dabney’s description of “a defensive war to save his country” is exactly how he characterized the Civil War in his A Defense of Virginia, and Through Her of the South (1867).

Dabney’s point is that this “wise and righteous” general may change his plans as the war develops, but God, knowing all, never changes his plans. The material used to illustrate this theological point is reflective of his own Lost Cause narrative of the Confederacy and the Civil War.

“Plausible Pretender”?

There is one point with which I agree with Dabney, and it appears mainly in his discussion of the “Perseverance of the Saints.” Here are a few passages of Scripture to set the stage:

“He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now… he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

1 John 2:9, 11

“In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: whoever does not practice justice (δικαιοσυνην) is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.”

1 John 3:10

“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”

1 John 4:20

Early on in the book, Dabney notes the hardening effects of sin:

“Now, the soul’s duties towards God are the highest, dearest, and most urgent of all duties; so that wilful disobedience herein is the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits. God’s perfections and will are the most supreme and perfect standard of moral right and truth. Therefore, he who sets himself obstinately against God’s right is putting himself in the most fatal and deadly opposition to moral goodness.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 12.

The first and greatest commandment is to love God; the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. Dabney correctly notes that disobedience to these greatest commands is “the most express, most guilty, and most hardening of all the sins that the soul commits.” What is more “directly disobedient” to this command to love, than the sin of white-supremacy?

When distinguishing between genuine and false believers, Dabney notes that “the shepherd knows that it is always the nature of wolves to choose to devour the lambs instead of the grass” (52). What is more wolf-like than Dabney’s venomous explosion in the Synod of Virginia, “The Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes”?

His section on the Perseverance of the Saints is his fullest treatment of this dynamic:

“We do not believe that all professed believers and church members will certainly preserve and reach heaven. It is to be feared that many such, even plausible pretenders, “have but a name to have while they are dead.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 68.

He acknowledges that genuine believers can “backslide,” but asserts that “a covenant-keeping God will recover them by sharp chastisements and deep contrition… if he is a true believer he has to be brought back by grievous and perhaps by terrible afflictions; he had better be alarmed at these!” One would be hard pressed to imagine a more sharp chastisement to White Supremacy than the horrors of the Civil War, yet Dabney was never “alarmed” out of his hatred, indeed, he became even more deeply entrenched in it in the years following.

“the Presbyterian similarly backslidden is taught by his doctrine to say: I thought I was in the right road to heaven, but now I see I was mistaken all the time, because God says, that if I had really been in that right road I could never have left it. Alas! therefore, I must either perish or get back; not to that old deceitful road in which I was, but into a new one, essentially different, narrower and straighter.”

“The Five Points of Calvinism,” 69–70.

Dabney himself sets the alternatives starkly in front of us: either get back, or perish. “No man can be saved in his sins, therefore this man will certainly be made to persevere in grace” (70). What then of the man who does not!

Dabney later alludes to 2 Peter 2:22 “The sow that was washed returns to her wallowing in the mire.” He expounds that “She is a sow still in her nature, though with the outer surface washed, but never changed into a lamb; for if she had been, she would never have chosen the mire.” I will only note that the “washings of a sow” can, and do, include the theological, the draping of Orthodox Calvinism over a mire-ridden core of white supremacy.

The verdict of the great Judge will sort this all out, but note His warning: “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). No anachronism, or “presentism” is needed to evaluate Dabney—his own words suffice.

Conclusion

In the final paragraph of the book, Dabney notes that Calvinism “corresponds exactly with experience, common sense, and true philosophy” (79). Indeed, Dabney drew repeatedly on his own life experience and notions of “common sense,” both forged deeply in the bellows of White Supremacy and slaveholding. It is not surprising that his explication of Calvinism is woven throughout with these notions; what may initially seem more surprising is the blindness of Dabney’s 20th century admirers as they perpetuated his legacy. Now, in the 21st century, may that Lord grant us all clearer eyes to see.

“Emotional Blackmail” and “The Sin of Empathy”

When Joe Rigney published his first article on “The Enticing Sin of Empathy” on the DesiringGod website in May 2019, many were bewildered — where did this come from? In subsequent articles, Rigney has unpacked some of the sources of his position, including the work of Edwin Friedman and his “The Fallacy of Empathy.” But another significant source for this idea is found in the teachings of John Piper himself, particularly the concept of “emotional blackmail.” Piper developed this concept over the course of several years, from talking about our “emotionally fragile age” in 2006, to the way children “emotionally blackmail” their fathers in 2007, to a speculation regarding A.W. Tozer’s wife in 2008. Through Piper, the language of “emotional blackmail” became widespread among conservative reformed evangelicals, especially at The Gospel Coalition, so when Rigney wrote his articles on “the sin of empathy” a decade later, they found a ready platform at DesiringGod, and a ready audience (among some) in conservative evangelicalism, because they so closely resembled Piper’s original concept, if perhaps dressed up in new, more provocative, language. The following post documents this development from 2006 to 2021.

“An Emotionally Fragile Age”

John Piper does not include the phrase “emotional blackmail” in his 2006 book What Jesus Demands from the World, but he develops several points that he will pick up in later sermons and comments on “emotional blackmail.” In the chapter titled “Love Your Enemies—Lead Them to the Truth,” Piper includes a section under the heading “Challenging the Absoluteness of the Beloved”:

The next obvious implication of Jesus’ words for the meaning of love is that it is not unloving to call someone an enemy. We live in an emotionally fragile age. People are easily offended and describe their response to being criticized as being hurt. In fact, we live in a time when emotional offense, or woundedness, often becomes a criterion for deciding if love has been shown. If a person can claim to have been hurt by what you say, it is assumed by many that you did not act in love. In other words, love is not defined by the quality of the act and its motives, but by the subjective response of others. In this way of relating, the wounded one has absolute authority. If he says you hurt him, then you cannot have acted lovingly. You are guilty.

No one I have ever known in person or in history was as blunt as Jesus in the way he dealt with people. Evidently his love was so authentic it needed few cushions. It is owing to my living with the Jesus of the Gospels for fifty years that makes me so aware of how emotionally fragile and brittle we are today. If Jesus were to speak to us the way he typically spoke in his own day, we would be continually offended and hurt. This is true of the way he spoke to his disciples and the way he spoke to his adversaries.

The point of this is that the genuineness of an act of love is not determined by the subjective feelings of the one being loved.

I am stressing another side of the problem that seems unusually prevalent in our psychologized world. I am simply drawing attention to the fact that feeling unloved is not the same as being unloved. Jesus is modeling for us in his life the objectivity of love. It has real motives and real actions. And when they are loving, the response of the loved one does not change that fact.

pp. 641–43 in The Collected Works of John Piper, Volume 6.

Though Piper does not use the term “emotional blackmail” in this chapter, he will explicitly use some of this same language (“feeling unloved is not the same as being unloved”) when describing “emotional blackmail” in 2008.

One point seems interesting and important to note here. Piper draws attention to the fact that Jesus sometimes used sharp words in “the way he spoke to his disciples and the way he spoke to his adversaries.” All of the scripture references in this section of What Jesus Demands are directed toward his twelve disciples, Pharisees, Herod, and Jesus cleansing the temple. Though Piper would later apply this reasoning to a wife who claimed that she did not feel loved by her husband, casting doubt on her claim, and wondering whether she might be engaging in “emotional blackmail,” it is striking that this is a significant leap from the text of the scriptures that Piper cites to support his initial claim. What Jesus directs toward hard-hearted disciples and Pharisees, Piper will apply to wives, and anyone else who he thinks is too “emotionally fragile.” Whether such a leap from text to application is warranted, the reader must judge.

Children Blackmailing Fathers

The first reference to “emotional blackmail” in Piper’s works can be found in a 2007 sermon on Ephesians 6:1–4: “Marriage Is Meant for Making Children . . . Disciples of Jesus, Part 2: A Father’s Conquest of Anger in Himself and in His Children.” While unpacking the phrase “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,” Piper acknowledges that angry children are not necessarily evidence of a sinful father:

So what shall we say to us dads about this matter of anger in our children? First, we should say that this verse may not be used as emotional blackmail by the children. Blackmail would say, “I am angry, Dad, so you are wrong.” Some people never grow out of this childish self-centeredness: “My emotions are the measure of your love; so if I am unhappy, you are not loving me.” We have all experienced this kind of manipulation. We know Paul does not mean that because Jesus himself made many people angry, and he never sinned or failed to love perfectly. Since all children are sinners, therefore, even the best and most loving and tender use of authority will provoke some children sometimes to anger.

(Note: this paragraph (indeed, the whole sermon) was reproduced in book form in 2009 under the heading “No Emotional Blackmail” in This Momentary Marriage (p. 151))

Though the focus of the sermon is on fathers and children, note that Piper broadens the scope to include people who “never grow out of this childish self-centeredness,” and manipulate others with their emotions. 

Aiden and Ada Tozer

The following year, Piper would use the term “emotional blackmail” in a discussion surrounding the wife of A.W. Tozer. Tozer (1897–1963) was a pastor and author who is probably best known for his two books The Pursuit of God (1948) and The Knowledge of the Holy (1961). In 2008, Lyle Dorsett published a biography of Tozer, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer. Dorsett’s biography included frank descriptions of his home life,  including the fact that his wife Ada felt neglected by him.

The occasion that prompted Piper to write was a brief reflection on Dorsett’s book by Sean Michael Lucas, then the associate professor of church history at Covenant Theological Seminary. In his post, “A Passion for God,” Lucas said this:

Dorsett exposes a fundamental contradiction in Tozer’s character that raises all sorts of questions about holy zeal and its effect on the whole of life. The contradiction could be summed up: how did Tozer reconcile his passionate longing for communion with the Triune God with his failure to love passionately his wife and children? Perhaps the most damning statement in the book was from his wife, after she remarried subsequent to his death: “I have never been happier in my life,” Ada Ceclia Tozer Odam observed, “Aiden [Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me” (160).

Now, certainly all human beings have flaws; that is not the point here. Rather, the point that Dorsett failed to explore adequately is how Tozer reconciled his pursuit of God with his failure to pursue his wife. This reconciliation–or failure to reconcile–should have raised questions about Tozer’s mystic approach and prophetic denunciation of the church and nuanced the value of his teaching on the Christian life. After all, if his piety could spend several hours in prayer and also rationalize his failure at home, then it should raise questions about his approach to piety. 

In his blog post on The Gospel Coalition, “Tozer’s Contradiction and His Approach to Piety,” Justin Taylor published an excerpt from Lucas’s post, and added that “John Piper writes in with a helpful caution.” Here was Piper’s “caution”:

Sean Lucas seems to say that Tozer’s wife’s greater happiness with her second husband implies Tozer’s “failure to love passionately his wife.” When she remarried after his death she said, “”I have never been happier in my life. . . “Aiden [A. W. Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me.” Lucas may be right to infer from this sentence that Tozer loved his wife poorly. But Tozer’s wife’s statement does not prove it.

We would need to be as penetrating in our analysis of her spiritual condition as we are of A. W. Tozer’s. Not feeling loved and not being loved are not the same. Jesus loved all people well. And many did not like the way he loved them. Was David’s zeal for the Lord imbalanced because his wife Michal despised him for it? Was Job’s devotion to the Lord inordinate because his wife urged him to curse God and die? Would Gomer be a reliable witness to Hosea’s devotion? I know nothing about Tozer’s wife. She may have been far more godly than he. Or maybe not. It would be helpful to know.

Again I admit Lucas may be totally right. Tozer may have blown it at home. Lucas’ lessons from this possibility are wise. But I have seen so much emotional blackmail in my ministry I am jealous to raise a warning against it. Emotional blackmail happens when a person equates his or her emotional pain with another person’s failure to love. They aren’t the same. A person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt, and use the hurt to blackmail the lover into admitting guilt he or she does not have. Emotional blackmail says, “If I feel hurt by you, you are guilty.” There is no defense. The hurt person has become God. His emotion has become judge and jury. Truth does not matter. All that matters is the sovereign suffering of the aggrieved. It is above question. This emotional device is a great evil. I have seen it often in my three decades of ministry and I am eager to defend people who are being wrongly indicted by it.

I am not saying Tozer’s wife did this. I am saying that the assumption that her feeling unloved equals her being unloved creates the atmosphere where emotional blackmail flourishes.

Maybe Tozer loved his wife poorly. But his wife’s superior happiness with another man does not show it. Perhaps Lyle Dorsett’s new biography of Tozer, A Passion for God, penetrates to the bottom of this relationship.

A few things are noteworthy. First, it seems clear that Piper has not read Dorsett’s book (“Perhaps Dorsett’s new biography penetrates to the bottom of this relationship”). Everything he writes here about Ada Tozer is pure speculation. 

Second, note what Piper is “jealous” about, what provokes him to write: upon hearing of Ada Tozer’s claim that her husband neglected her for the sake of his ministry, Piper is not jealous to “raise a warning” to pastors. He could have said “Pastors, whatever you do, be sure to love your wife. If you have to leave the ministry, be sure to love your wife. Do whatever it takes to love your wife.” Rather, Piper is jealous “to raise a warning against emotional blackmail.” 

Third, note that in this post he draws together material from two previous occasions (1) What Jesus Demands from the World on “emotional fragility” and the fact that “Not feeling loved and not being loved are not the same” and (2) his teaching on the way that children attempt to manipulate and use “emotional blackmail” on their fathers; and then directs this combination at the claims of a wife that her husband was neglecting her and their family for the sake of his ministry.

(Note: for another review of Dorsett’s book from a reformed evangelical a few years later (2011) see Tim Challies, “A.W. Tozer: A Passion for God,” which highlighted the dichotomy in Tozer’s life and ministry, but did not question Ada’s account, or hypothesize on whether it amounted to “emotional blackmail”).

Ray Ortlund and Jared Wilson

Piper’s quote and particularly his phrase “emotional blackmail” was eventually picked up by other figures in the reformed evangelical network. In 2013 pastor Ray Ortlund republished Piper’s quote in a TGC blogpost (“Emotional Blackmail at Church”), and added his own analysis:

When a church’s mentality — the very categories and assumptions with which they process reality — is not biblical but therapeutic, this “great evil” can be perpetrated without any troubling of the conscience.  But no one should ever be pressured to confess as sin aspects of their behavior which the Bible itself does not identify as sin.  It is the Word of God, chapter and verse, and only the Word of God, not human expectations or emotions, which defines sin.  When we forget this, we exalt ourselves to the place of God with our own self-made demands and haughty accusations.  This is indeed a great evil, though self-exaltation rarely feels evil.  Misguided moral fervor feels good, even virtuous.

The following year (2014) Ortlund would reproduce this point, including Piper’s quote and discussion of “emotional blackmail” in his book in the 9Marks “Building Healthy Churches” series: The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (p. 101).

Jared Wilson also republished the quote on his TGC blogpost “Piper on Emotional Blackmail in the Church.” (This post appears to have been removed from the TGC website, but can still be found on Wayback).

As an observation, this is the way that a phrase and a concept work their way through a broader community, in this case, conservative reformed evangelicalism. Terms are coined, and then delivered in sermons and conference messages, then published in blog posts, and then in books, spread around by other influential pastors and writers. After a few years “emotional blackmail” became a part of the reformed evangelical vocabulary.

Marg Mowczo’s Critique

Not everyone appreciated Piper’s “warning.” In 2015, Marg Mowczo wrote a post critiquing Piper’s use of the term “emotional blackmail.” She also noted that “It seems the people at TGC really like these words” (“John Piper and Emotional Blackmail”). Mowczo found “a few things disturbing in John Piper’s words”:

First, John uses the examples of three women in the Bible who, for various reasons, had a problem with the godly zeal and devotion of their husbands. These three women—Michal, Job’s wife, and Gomer—are presented in a negative light in the Bible, and John compares their negative attitudes, words, and actions with the feelings of a woman who he admits he doesn’t know, Tozer’s widow.

The statement I have the biggest problem with, however, is this reference to Tozer’s widow: “… the assumption that her feeling unloved equals her being unloved creates the atmosphere where emotional blackmail flourishes.”

This is unfair. Why not believe her when she says she felt loved by her second husband, with the implication that she didn’t feel loved, or as loved, by Tozer. Why cast it as an “assumption”? And why attach her feelings to the issue of emotional blackmail? 

…It is disrespectful for John Piper to have used Tozer’s widow to explain “emotional blackmail.” But there is more to this quotation. 

He suddenly makes it personal and talks passionately about the emotional blackmail he claims he has often seen in his ministry…

John believes that some church members have wrongly assumed that he and other ministers have hurt them, when in fact they have loved them. He asserts that some hurting church members failed to feel the love of their pastors and then resorted to emotional blackmail.

I know of people who have been hurt by pastors. This usually occurs when people have unrealistic expectations of their ministers. Yet these expectations are usually reinforced from the pulpit or by church culture, or both. When pastors allow the perception that they are powerful people with a better or deeper spiritual understanding, maturity, or capacity than other church members, or when pastors accept accolades to that effect, then some church members will expect more than what pastors can actually give. Some members may even expect to be loved in such a way that they will feel loved.

To some extent I agree with John that “a person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt,” but what concerns me the most about his words is that John never admits that there were times when he failed to love well. He puts all the blame and guilt on those who have felt hurt.

Being a pastor can be a very difficult role, and there are times when pastors need protection. But John seems intent on protecting himself and his fellow shepherds at the expense of his fellow sheep. To protect A.W. Tozer’s reputation, he maligns his widow. To protect his fellow shepherds who have been emotionally blackmailed, he puts all the blame on the sheep. Surely there must be a way of supporting and caring for the shepherds without resorting to unhelpful and uncaring insinuations against fellow Christians.

For the record, I agree with Mowczo’s critiques here. I find Piper’s criticisms unwarranted and seeming to “protect shepherds at the expense of the sheep.”

Erik Raymond

In 2016, Boston pastor Erik Raymond published an article on TGC on “Common Evangelical Attacks Against Sola Scriptura.” In it he listed “3 common attacks upon the sufficiency of Scripture” and the third was “The unmeasurable and devastating emotional blackmail.” Raymond favorably quotes Piper’s 2008 remarks on the Tozers and concludes the paragraph with this: 

How does this undermine the sufficiency of Scripture? It does so because the Bible gives us the basis for interpreting what loving behavior actually is. There is fruit that corresponds with love. And sometimes it doesn’t make us feel very good.

“Emotional blackmail” had moved from a tactic used by children on their fathers, to a dismissal of a wife’s claims, to an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture.

Joe Rigney and The “Sin of Empathy”

In 2019, Joe Rigney published his first article on “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” In this initial article, he does not use the term “emotional blackmail” but the ideas are consistent. In the genre of a “Screwtape Letter” Rigney has the demon Screwtape explain the plan for emotional manipulation:

Our policy has been to teach sufferers to resent all resistance to their feelings. Any holding back, any perceived emotional distance — especially a distance that is driven by a desire to discover what would actually be good for them — must be regarded as a direct assault on their dignity and an affront to the depth of their suffering.

Over the next couple of years, as Rigney further elaborated on “the sin of empathy,” he began to explicitly tie it to Piper’s language of “emotional blackmail.” In a January 2020 post on DesiringGod “Dangerous Compassion: How to Make any Love a Demon” Rigney analyzes a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and includes a section under the heading “Emotional Blackmail.” One of Rigney’s “takeaways” is that we don’t always recognize 

“when our compassion ceases to be compassion and instead becomes a subtle tool of emotional blackmail. But if Lewis is right that the highest and best things become demoniac when they begin to be gods, then we ought to be aware that compassion — which is one of the highest and best things — can also fall into this trap.”

In May 2020, Rigney published another article “Do You Feel My Pain? Empathy, Sympathy, and Dangerous Virtues.” In this article, Rigney again puts an entire section under the heading “Emotional Blackmail” and this time explicitly references Piper: “Under the influence of empathy, we may open ourselves up to what John Piper calls ’emotional blackmail.’” He then includes a block quote from Piper’s 2008 speculation regarding Ada Tozer.

Others began to weigh in on the discussion, including Kevin DeYoung. In a March 2020 blog post on TGC (“Sympathy Is Not the Point”), DeYoung used the language of “emotional blackmail” to make his point: 

“feelings are not infallible. Sensitivity is one thing, sacrosanct is another. I am always responsible for what I do; I am not always responsible for how you feel. If emotional ineptitude is a problem for some, then emotional blackmail is for others.

In a May 2020 blogpost, Bethlehem College & Seminary professor Andy Naselli published a post summarizing Rigney’s articles on the sin of empathy (“How Empathy Can Be Sinful”). In this post, Naselli explicitly connected the dots between Piper’s “emotional blackmail” (quoting his comments on Ada Tozer) and our “emotionally fragile age” (quoting from What Jesus Demands from the World) and Rigney’s “The Sin of Empathy.” Naselli, too, affirms this as a “thought-provoking, insightful, and wise way to apply the Bible.”

“Empathy Blackmail” and “Ethnic Harmony”

Later that year, Naselli would apply this concept to the issues of race, or what Piper has termed “ethnic harmony.” Naselli taught a seminar at Bethlehem Baptist Church’s campus on “Ethnic Harmony” (“Ethnic Harmony 2020 North Campus Seminar”), and then published a journal article “What the Bible Teaches about Ethnic Harmony,” in the Midwestern Journal of Theology (2020). In the article, Naselli includes this point: “iv. Christians who are victims of ethnic partiality must not nurture resentment or show ethnic partiality in return.” He notes that:

“This statement might sound insensitive—the opposite of showing compassion. But that is not my intent. My intent is to show compassion by lovingly sharing the truth and by not withholding the truth” (38).

He then applies the concept of “empathy blackmail” to minorities who claim to have been on the receiving end of actual “or perceived” racism:

“here I am addressing Christians who are at the receiving end of actual or perceived ethnic partiality. With love I want to gently warn against adopting the mindset of a victim that is so common in our culture now. I am warning against empathy blackmail: “You must completely agree with me and share my perspective, or else you don’t love me.” I am warning against weaponizing empathy and manipulating others with it. I am warning against being oversensitive about what you perceive as micro-aggressions with the result that you are so easily “triggered” that you cannot live out what the NT says about loving your neighbor” (39–40).

To support his point in his article, he footnotes four of Joe Rigney’s blogposts on “the sin of empathy.”

2021

In April 2021, Joe Rigney published yet another article on empathy (“Where Do We Disagree?: Golden Rule Reading and the Call for Empathy”), and again explicitly tied the two concepts (“empathy” and “emotional blackmail”) together: 

If you’ve seen or experienced emotional blackmail in the name of empathy, or if you’ve seen Christians divided because some have adopted the logic that “I’m hurt; therefore you sinned,” then you’re more likely to be aware of that danger and thus emphasize the need for a deep respect for objective truth and goodness in our efforts to help.

And in May 2021, John Piper used the phrase again, this time to describe unbelievers (“Can Joy Come in Sorrow?”)

The enemies of Christ cannot succeed with emotional blackmail against Paul — that is, they cannot manipulate him by demanding the ruin of his joy because of their unbelief.

Conclusion

“Emotional blackmail” and “the sin of empathy” appear to be essentially the same thing. In what Piper thinks is an “emotionally fragile age,” he and those who have been influenced by him are concerned that we, especially fathers, pastors, and husbands, are not manipulated by the emotions of others, including children, women, and racial minorities.

To me, it is striking that one of the most important moments for the development of this concept, the discussion of Ada Tozer, was based on such flimsy evidence, from both the Tozer’s lives, or from Scripture. Without even having read the biography, while acknowledging that perhaps all of it was true, Piper felt “jealous” to expound on the danger of “emotional blackmail.” Though all of Jesus’s “hard words” were directed toward His heard-hearted disciples, Pharisees, or unbelievers, Piper directed this idea toward women. Once articulated in this way and in this context, the phrase spread broadly through conservative reformed evangelicalism.

Sometimes when you find yourself in a mess, you need to backtrack and figure out how you got there. What if we went back revisited this particular point? What if the warning about “emotional blackmail” was the wrong take then, and that’s what led us to “the sin of empathy” now? What if instead of “jealous to raise a warning against emotional blackmail” we were jealous for the flourishing of everyone in our communities? What if we stopped defending pastors and institutions at the expense of the sheep? Doing so may require going further back than we imagined, in order to untangle and undo years of harm.

“Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson”

In March 2019 I submitted two reports to the leadership of Bethlehem College & Seminary: “Bethlehem College & Seminary and Ethnic Harmony: A Minority Report,” and “Bethlehem College & Seminary, Ethnic Harmony, and Doug Wilson” (note: “ethnic harmony” is Bethlehem’s language for issues related to racial reconciliation). I was the Director of Admissions and was responsible for recruiting and admitting students to all programs, including the college and the seminary. We had been struggling to recruit Black students the seminary for several years, and I had recently heard concerns that “BCS is not a good place for minority students” from some current students, former students, and fellow Bethlehem Baptist Church members. Since this was my job, I followed up and took a representative survey of some students, alumni, faculty, board members, and friends of the school, out which came these two reports. 

Recently, I have heard from multiple attempts to downplay or minimize the relationship between Bethlehem and Douglas Wilson, and I would like to document the fact that (1) there is a substantial connection and (2) BCS leadership has been directly confronted with this question for several years. (note: I am not sharing the first report, as it contains direct feedback from people whom I have not received permission to share from).

(Note: this report is specifically focused on issues of race, and thus does not discuss Wilson’s views on women, sexual abuse victims, or any other number of issues that could each receive their own focused treatment.)

I had four goals in the report, reflected in the main headings:

I. Document the affiliation between Bethlehem College & Seminary, DesiringGod, and Doug Wilson.

II. Show why Black and Tan is so offensive and historically inaccurate.

III. Reflect on the past six years (now 8) since the Doug Wilson / Thabiti Anyabwile exchange in 2013.

IV. Suggest some areas we might consider taking action on.

I had intended to share the report with all faculty in order to discuss it at one of the monthly “Faculty Forum” meetings, but was encouraged to share it with the President’s Cabinet first. 

It was not well received.

First, I was immediately told that I was not permitted to share these findings with anyone. Not with faculty, not with pastors, not with board members — no one. I asked specifically if I could share it with Jason Meyer, who was then on the board of trustees, was the Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and professor of preaching at the seminary, and was told “no.” I asked to share with Sam Crabtree, chair of the BCS board — “no.” Of course, sharing with other faculty was out of the question, but the leadership decided to share it with Joe Rigney.

I was told that my reports were “incendiary,” as in “highly flammable,” and that they had the potential to damage the school’s reputation. This seemed to me to be a case of misdirection. It is Doug Wilson who is incendiary. It was our affiliation with him that I though could get us burned. It seemed strange to blame the person saying “Look! There’s a fire!” when the fire was started by someone else.

A number of meetings followed, some of which were very intense. At one meeting, I was admonished for “aggressively” pushing an “agenda” for racial justice. Whether I realized it or not, I was espousing “Critical Race Theory,” which, in 2019, was just starting to come on the evangelical radar. My social media posts were being observed and commented on, and apparently some of our faculty had expressed concern to school leadership regarding my statements, though no one had ever spoken to me directly about any of it. 

There was fear that the issues of racial justice had the potential to divide our faculty deeply, which was surprising to me, and if true, seemed to be a sign of brittleness. American slavery came up, including that sentiment that “the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery” so how can we condemn Jonathan Edwards’s slaveholding and call it “sin”?

The report on Doug Wilson was dismissed as “Desiring God’s problem,” ignoring the specific affiliations that the school itself had (and continues to have).

Later that summer, I again raised concern about our affiliation with Wilson at the time of the annual Association of Christian Classical Schools conference “Repairing the Ruins.” I expressed that my conscience was troubling me, and “I feel compelled to raise again the issue of our affiliation with Doug Wilson, an issue that has not been addressed at all since my raising it nearly 3 months ago.” Much of what I expressed is contained in this post: “Doug Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools.” I concluded with this:

I think that our affiliation with Doug Wilson, including ACCS, is a big mistake. I am asking you to reconsider whether this is really in the best interest of our school.

Specifically, I would be served to have clarity on the following questions:

—What exactly is our position on Doug Wilson?

—In the absence of any clear direction, are all faculty and staff free to make their own determinations on how to relate to Doug Wilson and his associated organizations? I.e., if Joe is free to associate in public and prominent ways with Doug, NSA, and ACCS, are others of us free to offer criticism in equally public ways? If not, what is the specific standard or policy to which we will be held on this issue? 

—Why do we feel the need to affiliate with ACCS? There are other classical education organizations that we could pursue like the Society for Classical Learning. Can someone articulate the difference between the two and offer an argument in support of the ACCS?

The school sent another representative to this conference, and ultimately it was determined that nothing public would be said clarifying Bethlehem’s connections to Doug Wilson. 

Finally, in October 2019, our annual renewal to ACCS came up and I once again raised concern about our official affiliation with Wilson and the ACCS. On October 31, 2019, I was told that I was no longer permitted to “advocate for institutional change” regarding our various connections with Doug Wilson.

I closed my report with 8 suggestions, intended to prompt discussion among the faculty. Here was the eighth suggestion:

There may be other things that Bethlehem might consider in order to clarify what has appeared to be confusing and ambiguous messaging regarding ethnic harmony in general and Doug Wilson in particular. With a faculty and staff of such creative minds, I’m sure there will be even better ideas than the ones suggested here.

Ultimately, the school, chose option #9:

But Bethlehem College & Seminary might decide that the price is too high to pay, and say and do nothing at all. I’m praying that that will not be the case. I love this school, and I pray that we will submit to our King, Jesus, whatever he might ask of us.

I continued working as Director of Admissions for another year and a half, and stopped advocating for “institutional change” regarding Doug Wilson. In February 2021, I resigned from my position and in July 2021 I left Bethlehem Baptist Church.

(Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash)

Doug Wilson and the Association of Christian Classical Schools

The Association of Christian Classical Schools is a national organization headquartered in Moscow, Idaho. It was founded by Douglas Wilson in 1994, and “provides accreditation for CCE [Classical Christian Education] schools” (see “Classical Christian Education and Doug Wilson” and the Christianity Today September 2019 cover story “The Rise of the Bible-Teaching, Plato-Loving, Homeschool Elitists“).

At present (March 2021) there are over 300 schools listed in their nationwide directory. A number of colleges and businesses are listed as “affiliates” and number of prominent evangelical figures “stand with ACCS” in including Albert Mohler, Eric Metaxas, John Piper, and Rod Dreher, as well as ministries like the Nehemiah Institute, and Desiring God.

In 2002, Preston Jones, professor of history at John Brown University, published an article on classical Christian schools (“Christian Classical Learning” pp. 12–13). Jones noted Wilson’s role in the classical Christian education movement and the founding of ACCS, but suggested that “If the Christian classical schools movement is going to be taken seriously in the academic world in the long run, its members would probably do well to distance themselves from some of their current leaders.” He noted Wilson’s views on southern slavery, and the book Southern Slavery as it Was, co-authored by “a neo-Confederate Presbyterian minister and League of the South leader named J. Steven Wilkins.” This book, published by Wilson’s publishing house Canon Press, “maintains, among other things, that the antebellum South was, literally, a holy land and that slavery bred mutual respect between the races— indeed, that relations between blacks and whites were never better than in the South before the Civil War.”

Jones noted that “Wilkins has been a speaker at major conferences of the ACCS, and at their national conference in Memphis last June were featured the wares of a neo-Confederate vendor.” He did note that “most of the parents who send their children to schools affiliated with the ACCS aren’t aware of the nature of some of the leaders’ views.”

In 2016 ACCS was denied accreditation in the state of Tennessee specifically because of Doug Wilson and his views on race, slavery, and other issues (“Bill yanked after school group founder’s views on slavery, homosexuals, adultery revealed”). However, it appears that in 2019, Tennessee reversed course and granted accreditation to ACCS member schools (Tennessee HB1392).

In 2016, the current president, David Goodwin, tried to address some of the controversy surrounding Wilson and create some distance between the organization and its founder (“A Response to ‘Classical Christian Education and Doug Wilson’”). Though Rachel Miller’s article explicitly references Wilson’s views on “theology, history, slavery, patriarchy, marriage, and sex,” Goodwin chose to sidestep these issues, referring only generally to the “theological debates that have involved Mr. Wilson” and noting that “Mr. Wilson certainly offers food for thought.”

Goodwin says that Wilson, “takes specific care not to exert influence on the ACCS.” However, it is interesting to note that:

  • Wilson is listed as an “Educator in Residence” at ACCS.
  • Wilson is featured as a plenary speaker every year at their national “Repairing the Ruins” conference (here’s the 2021 lineup; past and future speakers include Al Mohler, Rosaria Butterfield, and Joel Beeke)
  • Three out of their top five  recommended books are by Wilson, more than any other author on the page. 
  • If you wish to know “What is CCE [Classical Christian Education]?” and click “Read About It” one of Wilson’s books is considered “Foundational for new teachers and parents.”
  • Doug Wilson’s affection for the white-supremacist Robert Lewis Dabney is also reflected in ACCS book recommendations, which includes the Canon Press republication of Dabney’s “Secularized Education.” (For those needing to get caught up, here’s “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?”). However, some might think “just because someone has bad ideas in one area (white supremacy) doesn’t mean they can’t have good ideas in another (education).” Unfortunately, Dabney’s views of education were thoroughly influenced by his white supremacy. Sean Michael Lucas notes in his biography of Dabney that after the Civil War, Dabney opposed public education and particularly the education of the formerly enslaved people of the south. He thought public education was “heretical” because of its “leveling impulse” because “God had ordained a hierarchy of superiors and inferiors.” He also objected “for fears of racial mixing” and opposed the philosophy that “claims to make the blacks equal, socially and politically, to the most respectable whites” (Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 182–86). It’s disturbing to see Dabney’s work on education recommended by the ACCS, though I’m sure this has been edited of any overtly racist sentiment before republishing.
  • Doug Wilson’s Omnibus curriculum is used in a number of ACCS schools (a quick search of of the school listing found schools from California, to Minnesota, to Missouri, to Maine using this curriculum). Consistent with Wilson’s views of southern slavery, the curriculum includes an assignment asking students to: “Write a letter to a friend in the North who thinks that all slaves are mistreated and beaten. Explain how your family treats your slaves well.” (Omnibus III).

Nearly twenty years after Preston Jones wondered if the Classical Christian Education movement might want to “distance themselves from some of their current leaders,” there are no signs of that happening. In fact, ACCS has become more and more mainstream and has found support from several prominent figures. Back in 2002, Jones assumed that Wilson’s views “aren’t widely taught in ACCS schools.” That may be true. Parents, however, may wish to do a little homework of their own, asking about the level of affiliation and influence of Doug Wilson before entrusting the formation of their children to an ACCS school.

(Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash)

John Piper, Desiring God, Jonathan Edwards, and Slavery

John Piper’s interest in Jonathan Edwards goes all the way back to his seminary days when Dan Fuller mentioned Edwards in class (see “Books That Have Influenced Me Most“). The resources on Edwards over at Desiring God start in the 1970s and include:

Few others, if any, have done as much as Pastor John to promote Jonathan Edwards to his generation.

Edwards and Slavery

It wasn’t until 1997 that Ken Minkema published “Jonathan Edwards on Slavery and the Slave Trade,” after discovering Edwards’s “Draft Letter on Slavery” in the archives of unpublished manuscripts. (You can find a link to Minkema’s article, and others, here: Jonathan Edwards and Slavery: A Bibliography). The letter was published in 1998 in volume 16 of Edwards’s works “Letters and Personal Writings.” Minkema followed up in 2002 with a lengthy article “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” the result of five more years of study on the issue. Anyone wrestling with Edwards and slavery should start with this article (available here).

2003 happened to be the 300th birthday of Edwards. George Marsden published his monumental Jonathan Edwards: A Life and made free use of this recent scholarship. Marsden was perhaps the first biographer to treat Edwards’s slaveholding in any detail.

After this rediscovery, the scholarship on Edwards began to adjust to wrestle with this new information. Ever since then, John Piper and Desiring God have similarly tried to grapple with this issue.

“Trusting the Theology of a Slave Owner”

In 2003 several commemorations were also held, including a national Desiring God conference held in October entirely devoted to Edwards. A book was published featuring the addresses from that conference (A God Entranced Vision of All Things), as well as some additional chapters, and Sherard Burns, an African American, was “assigned the difficult task of examining how Edwards could pursue a God-entranced vision of all things and yet own slaves” (God Entranced Vision, 16).

Burns begins his chapter lamenting that “Nothing has been more of a stain on our history than the institution and cruelty of slavery in America” and calls out “European ethnocentrism,” and “the belief that some has the authority to impose their rights on others in such a way that stealing men, women, and children from their native land, tearing families apart, and systematically dehumanizing them was condoned and rewarded” (145). Even worse, “one of the most troubling facts concerning slavery was its association with Christianity” and Edwards is a prime example of this (146).

Burns then works through the issue, drawing on the scholarship of Minkema, Marsden, and John Saillant, as well as wrestling with Edwards himself. He finds “theological compromise” (147), capitulation to culture (148), and the mindset of an “elite” member of society, for whom slaveholding was expected (150). Burns evaluates Edwards’s defense of slavery, including the inconsistency in condemning the slave trade (i.e. the trans-Atlantic aspect of it) while still owning slaves himself: “The dichotomy in all of this is that Edwards would ‘oppose the overseas trade, even though he had hitherto purchased his slaves through it.’ (Stout and Minkema, ‘The Edwardsean Tradition,’ 3) Thus, to condemn the trade and at the same time to participate in the selling and buying of slaves was a glaring contradiction” (153).

Burns wrestles with how Edwards could have compromised like this, and finds that “Edwards was a sinner saved by the grace of God, who still battled with the remaining effects of his fallen condition” (156). But Burns goes further and examines two excuses: the slaves were treated “humanely” and they were “Christianized.” Burns quotes Jonathan Edwards Jr. to dismantle the first excuse. “Should we be willing that the Africans or any other nation should purchase us, our wives and children, transport us into Africa and there sell us into perpetual and absolute slavery?” (Edwards Jr., Injustice and Impolity of the Slave Trade and of the Slavery of Africans). Burns presses it further:

“let’s say someone came to your home and took away your child. For years you searched and after much agony found her location and her captor. You then say to him that you are going to press charges against him because he kidnapped your child, broke up your family, and caused much grief and despair. To your charge he responds ‘But I treated her well'” (158).

Burns then turns to answer the excuse that the slaves were “Christianized” by their masters, and the “inherent contradiction in offering Christ to men and women whom you hold in bondage, against their will, and on the basis of man-stealing” (159), before explicating clearly “the difference between sanctioned slavery in the Bible and the institution of slavery in America” (160).

Ironically, Edwards’s immediate followers–his protege Samuel Hopkins, his son Jonathan Edwards Jr., and Lemuel Haynes–became outspoken abolitionists. Whatever they saw in their mentor (and father!) it did not persuade them of American slavery’s legitimacy. In fact, Hopkins counted slave traders and slaveholders among “Satan’s followers” (162)!

Burns concludes by making the case for still reading Edwards, and wrestling with the tension of being “black and Reformed” (citing Tony Carter’s book On Being Black and Reformed.)

“Slavery was and still is a blemish upon America. Even after its abolition the residual effects are evident in the culture at large and regrettably within the church. As an African American who loves Reformed theology and Jonathan Edwards and who desires to see these truths embraced by all, especially those within the African-American context, I have to make sense of this hypocrisy. Edwards was only a small part of a much larger picture of Reformed thinkers and preachers. The theology I love so much is tainted with the stains of slavery, and my heroes–one of which is Jonathan Edwards–owned my ancestors and cared not to destroy the institution of slavery” (162).

“The agony and the ecstasy”

In 2009 John Piper made his first personal acknowledgement of Edwards’s slaveowning in an article pointing to Yale’s online archive (“Thank You, Yale, For This Gift“). Piper says: “The agony and the ecstasy of Jonathan Edwards is laid bare in this breathtaking availability of all that remains of him. From the bill of sale for a slave named Venus (the agony) to 68 titles on Heaven in the Miscellanies (the ecstasy), you can find it with the search engine built into the website.”

Bloodlines

In 2011, John Piper published Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. In the book he makes observations like this: “Race relations in America were plunged into ruin and destruction the day the first slave arrived in America, kidnapped for white gain against God’s law (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7)” (96).

He also acknowledges his indebtedness to Edwards: “I will put my theological cards on the table. I am a lover of the Reformed faith—the legacy of the Protestant Reformation expressed broadly in the writings of John Calvin and John Owen and Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon, and contemporaries such as R. C. Sproul and J. I. Packer and John Frame” (129).

He acknowledges the stain on his own tradition: “I know that those white, Reformed, Puritan roots are contaminated with the poison of racist slavery” (247).

Yet, interestingly, he never puts all the pieces together explicitly. In the book devoted to racism and slavery, he doesn’t mention the fact that Edwards himself owned slaves. Maybe he thought he didn’t need to, since he said as much generally. Maybe he thought that the publication of Burns’s chapter several years previously had done the job. Whatever the case, it does seem odd that Edwards’s slaveowning wasn’t specifically acknowledged in the book devoted to the topic.

“Slavery is a great evil”

In 2012, Desiring God published a piece by Trevin Wax: “What Do We Do With Our Slavery-Affirming Theological Heroes?” Wax is “amazed” at the depth of Edwards theology, yet “astounded that these theological giants could justify the owning of slaves, support slavery as a system, and conform to the racial prejudice common in their day.” Wax confronts the “man of his times” argument: “The one thing we cannot do is to explain away our theological forebears’ attitudes and actions by appealing to the historical context of their time… we must make sure that as we point out the general social ethics of the day we do not diminish the sinfulness of their practice.” He concludes: “Slavery is a great evil, but even slavery cannot stand in the way of the grace and glory of the gospel,” and thinks we can learn lessons from their blind spots.

“Edwards’ Failure”

In 2013, Pastor John devoted an entire podcast episode to the issue of “Slavery and Jonathan Edwards.” John was asked “How does his slaveholding factor into your evaluation Jonathan Edwards’ theological legacy?” and he finds 5 responses:

  1. It warns me not to idolize or idealize any man except Jesus.
  2. It cautions me that if he had blind spots on that issue, he may well have had blind spots on other issues, which means that I am going to now read with some more care.
  3. It makes me marvel that God uses any of us.
  4. Edwards’ failure in that regard teaches me that sanctification has blank spots like knowledge has blind spots.
  5. Edwards’ failure here makes me pray for light on my life and on my day.

“Call Them Out”

In 2017, Piper revisited the question again, “How Do I Process the Moral Failures of My Historical Heroes?” including Jonathan Edwards. After emphasizing the need to address present day sin, he asks, “Now, what about those who are dead, who’ve written books that we have found helpful?” He has a few suggestions.

First, “We need to acknowledge and be ready to admit the worst. It’s possible that a person was unregenerate that we have admired. And I think we should hope for the best, and we should be slow to pass final judgment on a Luther or an Edwards or a King.”

Second, “We should be consciously aware of their sins and call them out. Call them out. Name them; don’t white-wash it. Say the sin. And we should take that sin and watch out for its effects in their books. And that’s really important. In other words, if we say, “Here is a man who is a racist,” what could have possibly, in his theology or in his sermons, been affected by that, so we don’t get contaminated by that?”

Third, Piper reminds us that “the Bible itself encourages us that God uses flawed people, even to write Scripture.”

In conclusion, “we should probably be slow to judge and yet never white-wash the sins of any pastor or any writer. Call them out on it. Be alert to how those sins might have influenced their writings, and then profit from the writings to the degree that they are in sync with Scripture.”

“Limits of Godliness”

In April 2018, Piper published a biographical article on Edwards: “His Head and Heart Were God’s.” In it, he devotes an entire section to “The Limits of Godliness.” After quoting another author on the “mythic picture” of Edwards, Piper turns to “aspects of Edwards’s life that do not fit with his ‘mythic picture.'” He acknowledges that “Edwards’s freedom from conformity to the fallen world did not include freedom from slaveholding. The eradication of slavery in the body of Christ, to which God had pointed in the New Testament (Matthew 7:12; 23:8–12; Romans 10:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; 5:14; Philippians 2:3–4; Colossians 3:11; Philemon 16; Revelation 5:9–10), was long overdue.” He points out the abolitionism of the second generation of Edwardseans, and links to several other resources, including Thabiti Anyabwile’s article.

“No one is helped by whitewashing our heroes”

In October 2018, in an interview with Justin Taylor, Piper wrestled with the purpose of Christian biography (“Friends You Need Are Buried in the Past
Q&A on Reading Christian Biographies“). He compares Iain Murray’s biography of Edwards (which doesn’t mention slavery), and George Marsden’s (which does). Yet, there were other biographers, even atheists, who didn’t mention his slavery either, and Piper posits that “Murray didn’t mention slavery may not be owing to a whitewash, but something else.” Now, that is a question for another post, exploring both Iain Murray’s enthusiasm for R.L. Dabney, and Banner of Truth’s devotion to the Southern Presbyterians.

Taylor followed up with the question: “How do we think about our heroes who not only are sinners as we all are — nobody should be surprised that our heroes sin — but what do we do with significant ongoing blind spots and sinfulness that is unrepented of.” Taylor specifically notes how differently white evangelicals treat the sins of Edwards versus the sins of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr.

Pastor John comes out strong: “The first thing I would say is that no one is helped by whitewashing our heroes, your heroes. No one has been helped by it.” He repeats this: “you don’t benefit by whitewashing your heroes. You won’t ever ask yourself the hardest questions about life if the people you love are whitewashed and you don’t ever come to terms with their sinfulness.”

He then gives us a method for wrestling with this: “And another thought comes to my mind, namely, that if you see in Edwards, Luther, Dabney, if you see sin, you should flag it, wave it, acknowledge it. That’s why the book, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy has the subtitle Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful. “Flawed” — put that right on the cover. If you see it, you should wave the flag and then be alert. Where might that have infected the theology I love, right? So I love Jonathan Edwards’s theology, but his theology didn’t keep him from having blind spots. So why not? Is there something about his theology I could discern where it needs to be tweaked so that if he would have had that right, then he would have had this right? That’s a huge benefit from acknowledging the sins. It makes us intensify our vigilance over our appropriation of their theology.”

Passing the Baton

In 2013, Pastor John retired from preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and Pastor Jason Meyer took his place (“Pastoral Transition After a 32-Year Ministry“). On issues of ethnic harmony, Pastor Jason picked up where John left off, preaching the yearly Ethnic Harmony Sunday sermons in January, and leading the congregations efforts to address issues of race.

Though he loves the theology of Jonathan Edwards, he too has not been afraid to confront the issue of his slavery, in:

In that article, for example, Pastor Jason talks about the two ditches of underreacting or overreacting. Underreacting happens when we:

  1. Ignore the Issue
  2. Minimize the Issue by Maximizing the Positive Impact Elsewhere
  3. Minimize the Issue by Making It Historically Understandable

He exhorts us to obey Romans 12:9: ““Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” He elaborates on this further: “It should be noted that abhorrence is something beyond awareness. We mustn’t stop short at the mere awareness that Edwards owned slaves. We should abhor it. This response requires a strong emotional reaction in keeping with the nature of the evil involved.” He then describes his own reaction as he confronted this issue in greater depth than ever before. The whole thing is really worth reading.

Conclusion

For over 15 years, John Piper and Desiring God have been wrestling with the flaws of one of their biggest heroes, Jonathan Edwards. They have not whitewashed him, but have tried to deal honestly with this legacy. Some will think they have gone too far (“why bring up the past?”); others think they haven’t gone far enough (“why read Edwards at all?”). I confess, I tend toward the latter category. But no one can accuse them of ignoring the issue, and no one can accuse them of “capitulating to culture” on this. Pastor John has been fighting for ethnic harmony (imperfectly, to be sure) for decades, and has inspired a new generation of evangelicals, of which I count myself, who are motivated to take that baton even further.

UPDATE (2021-08-18): “Wishful thinking”

On August 10, 2021, John Piper published another article: “How Could Jonathan Edwards Own Slaves? Wrestling with the History of a Hero.” He describes his decades long journey of reading Edwards, and being surprised to learn of his slaveholding. Piper affirms that Edwards probably sinned in his slaveholding, and then pivots to equating slaveholding with 21st century American life: “I doubt that he was sinless in it (any more than I think our own American lifestyles are sinless).”

Piper had found so much good in Edwards: “It was unfathomable to me that anyone should think I was being set up by Edwards to have the mind of a slaveholder.” He then outlines what he sees as the New Testament teaching on “slavery,” concluding: “But in spite of all this transformation, the New Testament does not say in so many words, “There are no more master-slave relations in the church.”

Piper acknowledges Edwards ownership of Venus and Titus notes that “The scope of what we do not know is very great,” but he neglects to include some of the basic facts that we do know, like the fact that he wrote a sermon on the back of Venus’s receipt on “faithful gospel ministry” (see “a Negro Girle named Venus aged Fourteen years or thereabout”) or that when he died, Titus was listed among his other animals in the inventory of the estate (see “A Negro Boy named Titus; Horse; Yoke of Oxen”).

Piper acknowledges that this is wishful thinking on his part: “If someone says, “Piper, this is just wishful thinking,” my answer is that indeed it is wishful thinking.” But he thinks that “My wishes are not baseless, however unlikely they may seem against the backdrop of mid-eighteenth-century attitudes.” (for more on this “backdrop,” see The Edwards of History: A Reply to Doug Wilson)

In the end, after decades of wrestling, Piper still views Edwards as the best author he’s ever read, outside of the Bible:

Whatever explanation I might give for why Edwards did not see his way clear to the renunciation of slaveowning at his moment in history, one thing I cannot deny: fifty years of reading and pondering Edwards has been for me more heart-humbling, more Christ-exalting, more God-revering, more Bible-illuminating, more righteousness-beckoning, more prayer-sweetening, more missions-advancing, and more love-deepening than any other author outside the Bible. Whether this ought to be the case, I leave for others to judge. That it is the case is undeniable. And for this mercy I give thanks.

For myself, having read thousands of pages on or by Edwards, his having been commended to me by men like Piper, Edwards does none of these things for me any more. I cannot read his glorious rhapsodizing in “Heaven is a World of Love” without noting the radical disjunction between his vision of reality there, and his practice here on earth. I cannot read his account of “True Virtue” without noting his hierarchical sense of “beauty” where “everyone keeps his place” (see here). I cannot read his account of “humility” in Religious Affections where he draws an analogy to slavery (see here). There are thousands of other Christian authors and theologians to read, and I no longer am interested in Edwards, not because someone has told me I shouldn’t read him, but because I have lost all taste for his theology.

Observations on “Some Observations on William Carey’s Bible Translations”

H.L. Richard has just published a new article on the flaws in William Carey’s Bible translations in the International Bulletin of Mission Research: “Some Observations on William Carey’s Bible Translations,” (241–250). Here’s the abstract:

William Carey’s historic role in Bible translation is widely recognized. That Carey’s actual translations were of an inadequately low quality is not so widely known. This article, while not undermining Carey’s importance as a pioneer, points out five reasons why Carey’s translations were never widely used. Modern understandings of translation inform this paper, and Carey’s historical context explains many of his weaknesses. Not only is this article historical, but it concludes with the modern repercussions of inadequate Bible translations, calling for new translations in all major India languages that focus on people outside the church.

It’s a helpful and thought provoking article, and here are a few reflections.

First, it’s a helpful corrective to my perception of Carey. I had often been amazed and wondered how he translated the Bible into so many languages. It seemed too good to be true, and seemed to set a high and unrealistic bar for missionaries and Bible translators. Missionaries should certainly aspire to “attempt great things for God,” but must also be realistic. We are finite creatures, and if we try “to do too much” (shortcoming #3), we may not succeed in doing it well.

Shortcoming #1 was Carey’s “limited linguistic knowledge.” This is partly a produce of his time and the shortcomings of European studies of linguistics in general, but it is a factor nonetheless. Richard points out some specific aspects of this weakness, including assumptions about the development of Indian languages and their reliance on Sanskrit, assumptions which have since been shown to be false. The result was translations that were “strange and incomprehensible” (244).

Shortcoming #2 on “India’s undeveloped regional languages” mostly raised questions for me. The problem here was that “the vernacular languages in India during his time had not yet been standardized” (244). I wonder what can even be done about that? Perhaps there should be a concurrent effort to publish a variety of indigenous works alongside the Bible in order to “develop” the literary use of the language and move the language toward more stable footing?

The article made me interested to learn more about William Ward — “the best missiologist among the Serampore trio” (245). I know a bit about Carey, next to nothing about Ward.

Shortcoming #4 explores the “failings of the assistants.” Not that they were incompetent language helpers, but intercultural dynamics and the complexities of their relationship resulted in flattery (“this is perfect!”) rather than honest feedback and criticism.

I feel a little bit of tension regarding point #5 “Misplaced focus on words and word order.” As an American evangelical who holds to verbal plenary inspiration, I have a predisposition that the words do matter. But I realize that translation is much more complex and nuanced than a 1/1 code of word for word, or even phrase for phrase. This is an undeveloped area of thought for me. This tension reminds me of that articulated by John Piper (he got it from Andrew Walls) between imposing foreign categories and adopting indigenous categories: “Don’t aim to preach only in categories of thought that can be readily understood by this generation. Aim at creating biblical categories of thought that are not present.” I wonder to what degree this applies to syntax and even words as well as theological categories. There is give and take between languages in the process of translation. Even our English translations contain transliteration. However, it is helpful to be reminded of the ditch on the side of an over-emphasis on words at the cost of meaning.

In his conclusion Richard describes how a new language was created by Carey’s translations, what is called “Christian Bengali” (247). Such a language is fine for those who use it (they even take pride in it), but creates a barrier to evangelizing anyone outside the linguistic bubble. I’ve seen a similar dynamic in English among those who use the KJV exclusively. I personally found the archaic language a significant barrier to evangelism and discipleship which was an important factor in my switch to NKJV a few years ago.

Anyway, tolle lege! This is a great article. Thanks to Dr. Travis Myers for bringing it to my attention.

(Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash)

Charles Spurgeon and Textual Criticism

Elijah Hixson has a fascinating article published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society titled, “New Testament Textual Criticism in the Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” (JETS 57/3 (2014) 555–70) I found a pdf here. In it he notes that “one of the most paradigm-shifting events in the discipline of NT textual criticism happened during Spurgeon’s ministry: the publication of Westcott and Hort’s NT in the Original Greek [1881]” (555). It was Hort who “dethroned the Textus Receptus,”and Spurgeon found himself having to account for this shift.

Spurgeon offered this in Commenting and Commentaries: “Do not needlessly amend our authorized version. It is faulty in many places, but still it is a grand work taking it for all in all, and it is unwise to be making every old lady distrust the only Bible she can get at, or what is more likely, distrust you for falling out with her cherished treasure. Correct where correction must be made for truth’s sake, but never for the vainglorious display of your critical ability.”

Hixson then gives examples from 9 texts containing significant variants and how Spurgeon handled them. Sometimes Spurgeon kept with the traditional reading (the longer ending of Mark), other times he went with the “oldest manuscripts.” In one case, he preached a whole sermon point on a variant that he rejected as original. (“In Christ No Condemnation,” point III.): “Now we come to the third point, upon which we shall speak only briefly, because this part of my text is not a true portion of Holy Scripture.” It reminds me of John Piper’s approach to texts like John 7:53–8:11.

At one point Spurgeon preached an entire sermon on a textual variant: “And We Are: A Jewel from the Revised Version.”

Spurgeon preached eight sermons from Mark 16:9–20, and four expositions (Hixson, 562).

Hixson concludes with three observations: “First, Spurgeon was an independent, critical thinker, knowledgable in the discipline of NT textual criticism, and he weighed the evidence and made his own judgments, rather than taking the word of any one individual… Second, Spurgeon only discussed variants when necessary… Finally, to Spurgeon, evangelistic preaching of the gospel of Christ was preeminent. NT textual criticism was merely a servant to this goal” (568).

He closes with a quote which is worth repeating in full. The sermon was from Luke 4:18 which Spurgeon did not believe contained the full quotation from Isaiah 61:1. “Spurgeon’s solution to this problem was simple: rather than preaching from the text in Luke, he preached from the same text in Isa 61:1” (562):

“Concerning the fact of difference between the Revised and the Authorized Versions, I would say that no Baptist should ever fear any honest attempt to produce the correct text and an accurate interpretation of the Old and New Testaments. For many years Baptists have insisted upon it that we ought to have the Word of God translated in the best possible manner, whether it would confirm certain religious opinions and practices, or work against them. All we want is the exact mind of the Spirit as far as we can get it. Beyond all other Christians we are concerned in this, seeing we have no other sacred Book. We have no Prayer Book or binding creed, or authoritative minutes of conferences. We have nothing but the Bible and we would have that as pure as ever we can get it. By the best and most honest scholarship that can be found, we desire that the common version may be purged of every blunder of transcribers, addition of human ignorance or human knowledge so that the Word of God may come to us as it came from His own hand. I confess that it looks a grievous thing to part with words which we thought were part and parcel of Luke, but as they are not in the oldest copies and must be given up, we will make capital out of their omission by seeing in that fact the wisdom of the great Preacher who did not speak upon cheering Truths of God when they were not needed and might have overlaid His seasonable rebuke. Although we have not the sentence in Luke, we do have it in Isaiah, and that is quite enough for me.

The whole article by Hixson is fascinating, and I commend it to anyone interested in textual criticism or Charles Spurgeon.

Review: What Saint Paul Really Said

What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? by N.T. Wright

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Read for Yourself!

I have a friend who is really into N.T. Wright. I decided I needed to get caught up and set him straight on a few things, so I printed out the bibliography from The Future of Justification and decided to start with one of the most referenced (and shorter) books, What Saint Paul Really Said. I had my nit-picking glasses on, and a pen in hand.

I didn’t get past the preface before making a note that Wright is, “quite engaging and very enjoyable to read.” All the more need to be careful, of course. Chapter 1 is a history of the last 100 years of Pauline scholarship, covering SchweitzerBultmannDaviesKasemann, and of course Sanders. At the end of this chapter, I felt like I was “all caught up” on the theological situation, had a good overview of 20th century New Testament studies, and a sense of a Wright’s “big picture” theological strategy.  I was also enjoying his writing style more and more. When people say that N.T. Wright is a master communicator, it’s true. His writing is simply a delight to read.

The next 8 chapters are Wright’s brief attempt to show Paul in light of his 1st century Jewish context. He covers Paul’s own Pharisaic background, his encounter on the Damascus road, what realizing Jesus is the Messiah would have done to Paul’s whole theological framework, what that means for pagans. Jews, justification, the future and The Gospel. The final chapter is a critical review of A.N. Wilson’s Paul: The Mind of the Apostle. In the back is an excellent annotated bibliography, including all of the classic works on Paul, the New Perspective (as of 1997), and a good sampling of the classic reformation view of Paul.

My final analysis? I find Wright to be incredibly stimulating, and I find the 1st century context to be shedding fresh light on how I read the Bible and think about theology. There are depths to the message of Christ that are incredible, and in order to dig deeper, we must understand its own actual context, and not read our own (or our favorite theologian’s) back onto it. Wright helps us see the incredible forest, not just our favorite trees.

That said, I think Wright’s portrayal of the forest leaves a few bare patches, justification and imputation being a couple. I’m not ready to go all the way with him here, though I have been stimulated to think deeply again about these issues. There just isn’t space in such a short work to lay out all the groundwork that goes into Wright’s formulation of these doctrines — that’s what his larger books are for. For most, I don’t think this abbreviated treatment will be convincing, but I don’t think it warrants the shrill charges of “heresy” either. To understand Wright, you really need to read further than this.

Wright’s work can be divided into two categories, I think: His massive scholarly work, and his popularizations. This fits into the latter. If you want to understand Wright, I recommend reading the shorter popular works and getting a sense of his general themes before diving in over your head. I would personally recommend The Challenge of Jesus first, then What Saint Paul Really Said, and then dig into his larger works from there. After reading Wright, I am getting more fresh light from the Bible than I have in a long time. I am excited to read the Bible like I haven’t always been. I am seeing depths of who Jesus the Messiah Is that I’ve never seen before.

Don’t just read the reviews, critical or otherwise; read Wright, and see for yourself.

Review: The Hole in Our Holiness

The Hole in Our Holiness: by Kevin DeYoung

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Balanced, Biblical, and Encouraging Book on Holiness

This is another good book from Kevin DeYoung, this time on Holiness. Kevin is a great blend of a mind full of historic Christian doctrine, a background of stereotypical American evangelicalism, a great sense of humor, and a very readable style. This book is a brief formulation of a much misunderstood teaching in the Bible. Surrounded by antinomianism (however you define it) sinless perfectionism, “perpetually struggling” -ism, and external formalism, where is true holiness to be found? DeYoung starts with salvation and works all the way through.

He deals with several apparent paradoxes (“aren’t we already holy?”), and the often confusing relationship of the Christian to The Law (“His commandments are not burdensome.”)

Two of my favorite sections where “‘Effort’ is not a four letter word,” on the role of Christian striving after holiness, through the power of the Spirit. In other words “working out because God is working in us.” This short summary of his 2012 T4G message is pure gold (the message is classic, too). This aspect of the Christian’s holiness is often neglected, but absolutely vital. I highly recommend anyone wondering how all this works together do a word study on the greek word “energeo” in the New Testament – great, great stuff.

His section on true repentance, distinguished from the false, was also extremely helpful, sorting out the various responses a person has to their sin.

All along the way he draws on Lloyd-JonesThomas BrooksJohn MurrayJ.C. RyleJ.I. PackerJerry Bridges, and John Piper. He does a great job of drawing from the stream of all these great teachers, and applying it to today’s audience.

I definitely recommend this to anyone who wants a short, balanced, practical, Biblical, pointed, sometimes humorous and definitely encouraging book on Holiness.

Piper on Lloyd-Jones, part 6: Cessationism Quenches the Spirit

“Therefore, we may say emphatically that Lloyd-Jones was not a Warfieldian cessationist.

I think it is quite without scriptural warrant to say that all these gifts ended with the apostles or the Apostolic Era. I believe there have been undoubted miracles since then. (The Fight of Faith, 786; Joy Unspeakable, 246)

And when he speaks of the need for revival and for the baptism with the Holy Spirit and for a mighty attestation for the word of God today, it is crystal clear in Lloyd-Jones, he meant the same sort of thing as was meant in Acts 14:3, signs and wonders attesting to the Word of God. “It is perfectly clear…” – (Everything is perfectly clear to Martyn Lloyd-Jones) –

It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions … Was it only meant to be true of the early church? … The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary—never! – (you can hear him saying it, can’t you?) – There is no such statement anywhere. (The Sovereign Spirit, 31-32)

He deals with cessationist arguments, and says some mighty powerful things, that I can’t imagine Iain Murray would leave out of his biography, which he did. “To hold such a view as Warfield held is simply to quench the Spirit (SS, 46).  Because Iain Murray was publishing it [Warfield] at the time.  Pushing it.  These views, according to their dear father, Dr. Jones, is the quenching of the Holy Spirit!  and he didn’t want to lose his friends any more than he already was losing them, probably, and so he didn’t want them published until he was gone.

~From “A Passion for Christ Exalting Power