Never believe pronouncements of theologians if they conflict with your own moral sense.
I am re-reading John Piper’s extraordinary, honest and remarkably self-analytical account of his racist past.
Jesse Jackson grew up 3 miles across the town from Piper, in Greenville, South Carolina.
Piper writes: Our worlds were so close and yet so far apart. His mother, Helen, loved the same Christian radio station my mother did—WMUU, the voice of Bob Jones University. But there was a big difference. The very school that broadcast all that Bible truth would not admit blacks. And the large, white Baptist church four miles from Jesse Jackson’s home wouldn’t either. Nor would mine.
This was my hometown. And there is no mystery in it as to why a young black man growing up there—or a Martin Luther King growing up in Atlanta a generation earlier—would get his theological education at a liberal institution (such as Chicago Theological Seminary or Crozer Theological Seminary). Our fundamental and evangelical schools—and almost every other institution, especially in the South—were committed to segregation.
Theologians, 50 years ago, were committed to segregation, with a pastiche of Biblical quotes as a theological underpinning!
Treat the pronouncements of theologians with a healthy scepticism.
Encounter Scripture, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit for yourself.
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Piper goes on, I was, in those years, manifestly racist. At Wheaton, “I was simply disengaged from the wider social and political world. Large things were happening intellectually and spiritually, but they were happening in the furnace of my soul, not in the fires burning in urban America.
His great awakening came at the Urbana Missions Conference in December 1967.
“Warren Webster, general director of the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society and former missionary to Pakistan, answered a student’s question: What if your daughter falls in love with a Pakistani while you’re on the mission field and wants to marry him?
The question was clearly asked from a standpoint of concern that this would be a racial or ethnic dilemma for Webster. (This was four months before Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.) With great forcefulness, Webster said something like: “Better a Christian Pakistani than a godless white American!”
From that moment, I knew I had a lot of homework to do.
The perceived wrongness of interracial marriage had been for me one of the unshakeable reasons why segregation was right.
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Piper goes on to Fuller Seminary where he writes a paper on inter-racial marriage which he summarises, “The Bible does not oppose or forbid interracial marriages but sees them as a positive good for the glory of Christ” for “the imposing figure of Professor Lewis Smedes.
But Smedes (whose writing on forgiveness I love) “hesitates to give a wholehearted affirmation to the goodness of interracial marriage.” “This is a tough question, I think, especially at the present . It is extremely hard to see the positive effect of specific interracial marriages” was Smedes’ comment on the young Piper’s paper.
Piper concludes sadly, “I doubt that Smedes would talk this way today (he died December 19, 2002). I don’t know.”
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Theology evolves, theologians evolve. Never assent to any theological formulation which contradicts your own intuitive moral sense, and your own intuitive understanding of God or Christ, as based in Scripture.
Learned theologians assented to the crusades, the persecution of the Galileo, the Inquisition, the demonization of the Jews, the witch trials, the enslavement of Africans, the enslavement of the native people in South America, to colonialism, to Jim Crow laws, to segregation.
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And these are some of the theological questions and debates of our day. When does life begin? When a sperm, invisible to the eye, fertilizes an egg, as small as a grain of pepper? Does this barely visible fertilised egg have exactly the same rights as the mother, a college student, who “stooped to folly,” but knows she cannot bring up a baby well; or a rape victim; or a mother at the end of tether with 4 children? Or not?
Or: Can one be homosexual and a Christian?
Or: Are the world’s 1.62 million Muslims, 1 billion Hindus, and 350 million Buddhists automatically going to hell, because they have never been compellingly told of Jesus Christ (or John Calvin, who believed that that was their eternal destination.)
Or: Are women complementary to men (but, essentially unequal, a second-class gender.)
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If we take a historical look at the pronouncements of theologians, probably half of what they say turns out to be just plain wrong, and is overturned in a matter of decades or centuries.
As our understanding of Jesus and the Christian faith and how it plays out in our world evolves, we discount the ideas which are dated, or gained currency because of the neurotic writings of a dominant, magnetic theologian.
And so today, it’s safest, it’s best, for us to engage with Scripture ourselves, to ask Christ to guide us, and to never accept any pronouncements of the theologians of our day which conflicts with our own moral sense and our serious passionate study of Scripture!