John Piper's A Peculiar Glory: A Review

Is the Bible true? Really, a world hangs on the question. This subject occupies a major place in the minds of both Christians and non-Christians. For many it functions as a watershed issue, because once they become persuaded of the truthfulness of the Bible, the debate ceases. The argument ends, regeneration happens, and the eyes of the heart see something glorious. Since eternal souls hang in the balance, the question concerning the truthfulness of the Bible thunders with importance.

The author, John Piper, a pastor-scholar of 33 years, tackles the question head-on. For Piper, the Bible governs his life, drives his ministry, and ignites his passion to see the gospel spread throughout the world. Many owe their passion for and understanding of the gospel to this author and his love for Scripture. Understandably, therefore, the first of a three-volume series on Scripture thrills many of those whose lives have been impacted by Piper’s ministry. This particular volume leaves its readers with little to no disappointment.

Summary

Piper builds his argument with five main sections presented mostly in an interrogative manner: 1) “A Place to Stand,” 2) “What Books and Words Make Up the Christian Scriptures?” 3) “What Do the Christian Scriptures Claim for Themselves?” 4) “How Can We Know the Christian Scriptures are True?” and 5) “ How Are the Christian Scriptures Confirmed by the Peculiar Glory of God?” The author organizes his book with exactitude – typical of a Piper-book. Each chapter deals with an issue raised by the questions serving as section-headings.

As said, his book argues for the holistic and experiential truthfulness of the Bible. In the introduction, he clarifies his use of the word truthfulness by distinguishing revelation from mere containment. That is to say, Scripture does not merely contain truth, as Moby Dick, Plato’s Republic, or The Lord of the Rings contain truth statements (11). No, the Bible uniquely reveals truth, unlike any other book. As the author argues, “Aspects of truth can be found virtually everywhere” (11). But Scripture is the place where one finds a (or, the) peculiar glory. Piper’s introduction generally relies upon the Westminster Larger Catechism’s fourth question: “How doth it appear that the Scriptures are the word of God?” Answer: “The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the word of God, by…the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God” (13). The Scriptures disclose, through the work of the Holy Spirit, their own truthfulness by the revelation of a peculiar glory (16-17).

Part one comprises a single chapter about the author’s journey. Piper wants to clear up any doubt in the reader’s mind that he believes in the truthfulness of the Bible due to some historical argument or unique existential crisis he may have underwent. In other words, he did not hold onto the Bible; rather, the Bible held onto him throughout the varying seasons of life, schooling, and ministry. Part two raises the question of canon. In three chapters, the author articulates the belief that the Bible consists of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. Chapter two devotes twelve pages to the canonicity of the Old Testament, including a helpful section on Jesus’s understanding of its compilation and authority. Chapter three argues that “Jesus and the early Christians were Bible people” (51). That is to say, they assumed the existence and validity of the Old Testament’s canonicity. The final chapter in this section deals with the transmission of the biblical canon. Piper teaches the inspiration of the canon while maintaining its theanthropic nature. For those unfamiliar with the wide and complex field of textual criticism, Piper deals with it both briefly and helpfully in this chapter.

Section three contains three chapters considering the question of authority. Does the Old Testament have authority? According to Piper in chapter five, the Bible was making claims for itself before man engaged with it. He states, “God’s word does not wait…[for] permission to be God word” (89). Chapter six summarizes Jesus’s estimation of the Old Testament. The Psalms, the Law, and the Prophets all testified to Jesus; they were used by Jesus to rebuke the Pharisees and later the Devil; and he fulfilled everything to which the OT pointed. Therefore, his estimate remains a supreme estimation. Lastly, chapter seven examines the authority of the apostolic writings. Piper carefully conveys Jesus’s aim to govern his people by Scripture. By training and preparing the Apostles, Jesus grounds their authority in his own.

Part four gets into the meat of Piper’s thesis by asking the question, “how can we know the Christian Scriptures are true?” This particular section includes four chapters dealing with what it means to see this “peculiar” glory. Chapters eight and nine serve Piper’s argument by placing historical reasoning in its rightful place concerning biblical inerrancy. Evidencing one’s faith from a historical perspective can prove useful at times, but it must not serve as grounds for true, saving faith. As Piper later argues, the issue underneath unbelief lies much deeper than a denial of historical facts. Rather than a simple ascent to simple facts, the mind must see. What must one see? One’s eyes must be open to see glory.

Chapters ten and eleven wrestle with Pascal’s Wager and provide the solution. Piper presents Pascal’s Wager as a popular plea to venture upon God (169). However, as the author argues, the wager assumes too much. Pascal assumes that those who must choose something glorious can choose that which they have not yet seen to be glorious. The problem with Pascal’s Wager, according to Piper, lies in the absence of a sight of glory that “convinces and enthralls” (169). Authentic faith is not a wager; rather, the Holy Spirit gives a sight of glory that convinces the mind, enthralls the heart, and then produces faith (186).

Part five begins by asking the last question of the book: “How are the Christian Scriptures confirmed by the peculiar glory of God?” Piper devotes the remaining six chapters to experiencing the glory of God through seeing. Chapter twelve contains a series of arguments for the innate knowledge of the glory of God. Chapters thirteen through sixteen, however, zoom in to examine how a detailed examination of Jesus Christ reveals and confirms this peculiar glory. The author then concludes his book with a chapter on the proper use of historical reasoning for the purpose of reading and understanding the Bible. He argues for the necessity, but ultimately, the inability of apologetics to accomplish what only the Holy Spirit can as it regards conversion.

Evaluation

A Peculiar Glory contains far and away more strengths than weaknesses. It is appropriate at the outset to mention its readability, accessibility, and forthrightness. Nearly anyone can read it. In that regard, A Peculiar Glory remains an unfortunate anomaly in Christian writing, especially among Reformed books. The book addresses a number of relevant issues found in culture today.

First, Piper’s book uniquely reaches out to a unique audience. His audience includes those who may not necessarily confess Christianity. He helpfully makes arguments without the assumption that all his readers agree with his presuppositions. For example, asking about the Bible’s truthfulness at the outset invites potentially disagreeing readers to engage (11). However, the method by which he reaches out remains distinctly Christian. He assumes doctrines such as inerrancy, inspiration, and perspicuity. The argument builds operating (undoubtedly) out of a distinctly Christian (conservatively so) and particularly Reformed worldview.

Second, the book’s content covers a broad range of questions surrounding the doctrine of Scripture. The main sections of the book make up the basic systematic categories of Bibliology. Parts two and three address the canonicity and self-authenticating authority of the Bible. He devotes part four to inerrancy. And the fifth section deals broadly with the attributes of Scripture’s clarity, sufficiency, and necessity. These categories will prove useful to pastors as they disciple those unacquainted with systematic categories of Scripture. Rather than slogging through Berkhof, Bavinck, or even Grudem with lay-folk (useful though they are!), some become discouraged and quit in short order. One may be tempted to think Piper’s pastoral instincts are coming through in how he structured A Peculiar Glory.

Third, while Piper’s macro-argumentation remains helpfully systematic and traditionally Protestant, his micro-argumentation stays balanced. That is to say, the author steers clear of siding with any particular intramural debate. For instance, those who say, “No creed but the Bible!” reject confessionalism. But those who embrace creeds and confessions come in danger of excluding the Bible. Piper begins with Scripture, but keeps his Elder [Pastor] Affirmation of Faith and his understanding of the Westminster Larger Catechism as a summary statement of doctrinal belief. This sets an instructive example to readers. Again, Piper trains his readers to remain balanced in their approach to the subject.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, A Peculiar Glory inadvertently addresses certain issues in Evangelicalism broadly. First, a lack of confidence in the Bible leaves churches crippled and “powerless.” Evangelical pastors, such as Andy Stanley, desire pastors to place more confidence in the historical arguments for the resurrection rather than in Scripture. Piper’s book comes at a timely place in Evangelical history. He argues for Scripture’s ability to capture the affections of sinful hearts by beholding glory, not the sinner’s ability to reason their way to an inevitable pseudo-confidence. Second, many churches assume intellectual ascent to be the only requirement for believing the Bible. These churches are right to require the intellect, but they err in assuming it to be the only requirement. The author helpfully shows his readers the necessity of divine persuasion required to become convinced of the Bible’s trustworthiness. One’s eyes must be opened to see a peculiar glory.

Thirdly and consequently, Piper’s book inadvertently undermines the culture of decisionism. One of the reasons why churches require merely intellectual ascent is that an unregenerate heart remains unnecessary. Some churches boil becoming convinced of the trustworthiness of the Bible down to a decision. The conversation often goes like this: “Why do you believe the Bible?” “Well, because I’m a Christian.” “And why are you a Christian?” “Well, I’m a Christian because I walked the aisle and took the preacher’s hand when he told me to come forward.” “Wait, so why are you a Christian?” “I’m a Christian because I decided to become one.” Essentially, the culture of decisionism teaches “Christians” to believe they are what they claim to be because of mainly volition.[1] Piper’s argument undermines this cultural concept. Piper’s argument aligns with Paul’s, namely, that the same God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” has also penetrated the darkness of spiritual death (II Cor. 4:6). The “decision” comes as a result of regeneration (i.e. finally alive to see glory in the face of Jesus Christ), not a mere exercise of the will.

In terms of where A Peculiar Glory missed the mark, hardly any come to mind at all after reading it. Only chapter sixteen could have used some expansion. The church lies at the heart of redemptive history, and redemption lies at the heart of Scripture. Regeneration involves the eyes being opened to see the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (II Cor. 4:4). But as eyes continue to behold that glory, transformation happens by the Spirit from “one degree of glory to another” (II Cor. 3:18). That process happens most expressly in the church through discipleship and church membership. Perhaps Piper focuses on ecclesiology a bit more in Reading the Bible Supernaturally or Expository Exultation.

Conclusion

I heartily recommend this book for its readability and usefulness in ministry. The reader may allow me to conclude by asking three questions. First, why should this book be read? In short, A Peculiar Glory offers the sad scene of Evangelicalism renewed confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. The Word will do the work. Faith will come by hearing; hearing will come by the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). Second, who should read A Peculiar Glory? Pastors and church leaders ought to read it. After reading it, they should assign it to discipleship groups and smalls groups. This book will aid pastors in giving their flocks a proper understanding of what it means to be a Christian and believe the Bible.

Lastly, how did this book affect me? Three answers I give to this question. First, I need to read more of Jonathan Edwards’s works. I thank God for Piper’s influence on me, and Edwards’s influence on him. However, the time comes to immerse one’s self in the original sources, and I need to begin that process. Second, this book whetted my appetite for the next two in the series. By virtue of the titles of the following volumes, I anticipate good reading and fresh challenge ahead. Lastly, I found renewed passion to work for the joy of those in my local church, namely, by shoring up their confidence in the sufficiency of God’s Word. A Peculiar Glory will hopefully become one of those books that helps churches “proclaim the excellencies of him who [calls sinners] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).

[1] There are some who use this argument because they know no better argument. In other words, they are indeed Christians yet their argument lacks a proper understanding of salvation and the human heart. Pastors must show such genuine Christians much patience and increasing discipleship to give a proper answer “for the hope that lies within them” (I Peter 3:15). The main point made here critiques the culture that offers a mere decision as the basis of belief.

Review by Pete Thompson, M.Div. candidate

Piper, John. A Peculiar: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016. 286 pp.