Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast with longtime author and pastor John Piper. Here’s today’s question: “Hello, Pastor John, my name is Darmo, and I live in Indonesia. What encouragement would you give for us who have read and admired Eugene Peterson’s books over the years, in light of his recent admission that he would marry a gay couple. He seems to have recanted on this position, but it leaves in my mind a lingering question: When it comes to a national or international voice in the church, when do they lose their platform? If an evangelical wavers on so-called ‘same-sex marriage,’ to what extent are their life’s works valuable or not to the church, in private use and public commendation?” What would you say to Darmo?
Let me try to say something about this question without focusing too much on Eugene Peterson. It’s a bigger issue than one man. But I will say that I was really sad to read his seemingly cavalier endorsement of so-called same-sex marriage, and then how (in my mind) unsatisfying his retraction was.
Perhaps I wasn’t as surprised as some that he would move in that direction, but when he did, at least for a moment, it was a tragic development.
I say it was tragic because endorsing so-called same-sex marriage involves three tragic things:
- It involves a false and destructive view of marriage.
- It involves a false and destructive view of sexuality.
- It involves, probably most importantly, a false and destructive view of the gospel warning that those who live in unrepentant homosexual activity will not inherit the kingdom of God. The gospel of Jesus is given precisely to rescue us from that peril, so why would we send people into it if we are gospel people?
To me, these three faults — these three deeply destructive errors — are so serious that it’s almost inconceivable to me that a serious Christian would not be prevented from endorsing so-called same-sex marriage because of biblical faithfulness and love for people’s eternal good. The question for you becomes, in general, what should we do with the books and sermons of those who, somewhere along the way, depart from biblical faithfulness in these and other serious ways? I’ve just got four observations that I’ll make, and I hope they provide some guidance to us as we reflect on them.
Truth Remains Truth
First, in principle, a book that was once properly seen as true and helpful may remain true and helpful even if its author says things that are seriously untrue and unhelpful later on. The simplest way to show that this is true is to notice that King Solomon was the author of many of the proverbs. For example, Proverbs 1:1 says, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel.” He was also the author of the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon 1:1).
“It’s almost inconceivable to me that a serious Christian would endorse so-called same-sex marriage.”
Yet here’s what we read in 1 Kings: “For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (1 Kings 11:4–6). I conclude that, in principle, a book can remain true and helpful even if its author goes off the rails.
Seeds of Defectiveness
Second observation: if a writer does move in a seriously defective direction doctrinally or morally, we have good reason to reread what he has written and be on the lookout for the seeds and trajectories that might give some explanation for why he went in such a wrong direction.
In retrospect, we might discover in his writings things which, in fact, we had overlooked. We had given him the benefit of the doubt perhaps, and now we say, “Maybe not.” Those things carried the seeds of the defection or the trajectory of the defection in the end, so we might judge that the writings are not as helpful as we once thought they were on a more careful reading.
Here’s the third thing I would say. In what I said under number one, I used the phrase “in principle.” In principle, a book that was once properly seen as true and helpful may remain true and helpful. The reason I used the phrase “in principle” is to distinguish it from “in actuality.” In other words, a book never exists in principle alone — in abstract. It never exists isolated from connections with author, real and potential readers, churches, publisher, ministry, the fruit it bears, and the time in history when it served its purpose.
“In principle, a book can remain true and helpful even if its author goes off the rails.”
The point here is that the decision of what to do with the book isn’t based on the legitimacy of what it says alone, but also on its connections with people and churches and ministries and publishers and times. Any of these connections with the book might be very helpful or very harmful.
We need to weigh the issue of what our promotion or endorsement of a book may do in all of those connections. I’m thinking of the biblical principle of not causing your brother to stumble. Even in principle you may have freedom to do something, but other factors, when they’re drawn in, make that very act an unloving act (1 Corinthians 8; Romans 14).
Feet of Clay
Fourth, I would say that it seems to me one lesson we should learn from these repeated situations that happen in history is that we should avoid excessive, uncritical praise for an ordinary human author. Here I’m not thinking of inspired, biblical authors. I think God, in his mercy and inspiration, has protected those authors — even though they are fallen human beings — from writing what is false. That’s what we mean by inspiration. I’m not including them in this when I say uncritical praise of an ordinary human author is probably unwarranted and may do harm, even though we have been tremendously helped by the person we’re praising.
For example, I can hear excessive praise for Saint Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Karl Barth, or my favorites, C. S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, and John Owen. We would probably do well to regularly remind ourselves and our audiences that all authors have feet of clay and that every book should be read through the discerning lens of biblical faithfulness. Bottom line: test all things and hold fast to what is good.