The electric shock of the scriptures

30 September 2016

It is best to handle them with care, David Winter advises

A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian scriptures reveal their complete truthfulness
John Piper
IVP £9.99 (978-1-78359-409-2)
Church Times Bookshop £9

 

 

THIS substantial book — 300 large pages — has two themes. The first, and more attractive, is to persuade its readers that the most positive approach to the Bible is to regard it as a window on the glory of God. The second, pursued with almost desperate and repetitive emphasis, is that what he calls the 66 books of the “Christian scriptures” are the verbally inspired and inerrant Word of God.

Piper’s first aim is presented with passion and eloquence. For him, as an American academic theologian of conservative and Reformed convictions, the scriptures are not to be seen as a problem to be solved, or difficulties to be overcome, but as a window through which the believer may glimpse the transcendent glory of God. This is neither “mere dazzling” nor “supernatural otherness”, but the “peculiar and utterly unique glory of Jesus Christ”. Preachers, teachers, and writers on the Bible, such as myself, may recognise the danger of missing the spiritual wood for the theological trees. From time to time, as we handle the scriptures, rather like an electrician rewiring an old house, we get a shock that reminds us that we are handling something dynamic and, yes, glorious.

For that insight, Piper acknowledges his debt to the 18th-century Puritan preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. Edwards, however, saw this glory as revealed in the gospel. Piper extends it to the whole of the scriptures, and so feels required to justify all of its 66 books as presenting the infallible Word of God. He offers, however, three caveats, ones with which we have become familiar through the controversies of the past century. The Bible is infallible in what it “affirms”; when it is “rightly interpreted”; and “in the original manuscripts”. As well as these assertions (each of which, of course, requires the exercise of human judgement), he offers Calvin’s doctrine of the “self-authenticating scriptures”.

Piper quotes what he calls a “crucial fact” for Edwards. “Our faith is not in the factuality of the gospel, but also in the holy beauty and amiableness that is in divine things.” That is the “peculiar glory” of this book’s title. For this reviewer, the many chapters on canonicity, apostolic authority, and so on, which are intended to validate that glory, actually tend to obscure it.

 

Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in Oxford diocese, and a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.

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