I understand very well the dangers of criticizing well-established names in the Christian community. It certainly doesn’t win you friends. It may make you lose some friends. Christians are quite intolerant when someone criticizes the icons of their modern Christianity. You are accused in being divisive, jealous, unmerciful, etc. No matter how right and honest you are, criticizing a great man of the faith can put on you a mark of leprosy for a long time ahead.
But sometimes even great men of the faith say or do things that are foolish or dangerous. Not everyone sees the foolishness or the danger; the bright light of the great men blinds even the best Christians at times. But those of us who see the foolishness or the danger in the words of the great men must speak up, even at the cost of being ostracized. Just as Paul rebuked Peter, and Augustine refuted Pelagius, and Luther criticized Erasmus, the errors of great men must be corrected, even by those of us who aren’t as great as they are.
Therefore I must take issue with John Piper’s article on the Ligonier Ministries web-site, “The Precious Gift of Baby Talk.” Piper takes 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, where Paul compares our eternal state, when we shall see things “face to face,” to our present state as the thoughts, words, and actions of a mature man compare to the thoughts, words, and actions of a child. He then proceeds to call our present language “baby talk” compared to our language in the eternal state. That’s a fair conclusion: It can be deduced from Paul’s words, that we are children today compared to what we will be in eternity. Then Piper declares that “baby talk” is a “precious gift,” and woe to those who despise it. Then he jumps to the declaration that the whole Bible is baby talk, and that God talks to us in baby talk. Everything is baby talk, and how precious it is.
Babies, their actions, and their talk always produce emotions in us – especially in those of us who are parents and who remember the first years of their children’s lives. There’s nothing wrong with these emotions. But we can’t base our exegesis and our theology on emotions. Piper’s article is bad exegesis. It is bad theology. And taken in its direct meaning, with Piper’s authority as a scholar and theologian, it will produce dangerous results.
It is bad exegesis because Piper imposes conclusions on the text that are not there. While it is true that our present talk is much inferior – “baby talk” – to our talk in our glorified state, the text doesn’t say our present “baby talk” must be considered a “precious gift.” Such emotionalism concerning our present condition is lacking in 1 Corinthians 13, and in fact, it can’t be found in the Bible at all. There is no glorification of our childishness anywhere in the Bible; there are no thanksgivings to God for the fact that we are like children today. Neither is there any rebuke against those that “despise, belittle, exploit, or manipulate” baby talk. The Bible doesn’t anticipate such a “problem” that Piper writes against. Neither baby talk, nor childishness, not our present imperfect condition in speech, thought, and action is anywhere to be considered “precious gift.”
Ironically, Piper’s chosen passage is in the context of a larger passage of several chapters where Paul admonishes the believers to be mature. Baby talk and childishness are not praised, to the contrary, the next chapters contains Paul’s conclusion to the whole discussion on spiritual gifts: “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking” (1 Cor. 14:20). As we will see below, the Bible encourages maturity, not “baby talk.”
Furthermore, there is no verse in the Bible that declares God’s word to be “baby talk” by any stretch of our finite imagination. Neither was Jesus walking in a “human nursery,” talking “baby talk.” While the picture of us being babies and Jesus being our great Brother, teaching us and admonishing us in our infirmities is not wrong per se, we don’t see a single verse where Jesus claims He is talking baby talk so that we understand better. He spoke in parables, not in fairy tales. And the purpose of His parables was clear: So that the unsaved wouldn’t understand Him (Matt. 13:10-17). Far from coming to a nursery, Jesus acted as if He had come to a reputable university where the learned thought they knew something, and He confounded them all by speaking way above their heads. Even when He applied the Old Testament verse, “Out of the mouths of infants and babies Thou have perfected praise,” the immediate occasion was young children speaking theology, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” mature and meaningful enough to offend the high priests and the scribes (Matt. 21:15-16). It wasn’t baby talk at all.
Piper calls Calvin for help, and quotes from his Institutes, 1:13:1, “God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children.” But the immediate context of Calvin’s words has nothing to do with our childish condition today compared to our mature eternal state. Calvin’s words apply to our finiteness in knowing God as He is. This finiteness won’t change in our eternal state, therefore Piper can’t use Calvin’s words to support his thesis. Calvin doesn’t say that baby talk is a “precious gift,” nor does he inveigh against imaginary mockers of this baby talk. If anything, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13 he considers the very need for the gifts of knowledge and prophecy due to our imperfection today; not only is our childishness not a “precious gift,” it is imperfection from which we need to be freed.
Piper considers himself Reformed. But historical Reformed theology never praised childishness or baby talk the way Piper does. As a matter of fact, one of the Reformers’ first controversies with the Roman church was over the images in the churches. The Roman argument was that images were a “guide to the unlearned,” much like pictures are to children. The Reformers vehemently preached and wrote against this argument, and against any argument that presupposed permanent childishness in the believers. If some men in the churches were “babies” in understanding, the church wasn’t supposed to cater to their childishness, nor praise it as a “precious gift.” Childhood and infancy were only a temporary condition, the children were supposed to be matured, trained to think, talk, and act as adults from an early age. Maturity was the product the Church was supposed to supply to society, not praise of baby talk. “Childish” is a pejorative word in Calvin’s language, and in the language of the Puritan authors. Britain and America, and the Huguenot communities in France were known for the early maturity of their youth. We know enough stories of the lives of the Founding Fathers of the United States to tell us that they were productive, wise and mature at ages that today are considered “childhood” or “teen age.”
Indeed, the Bible has only good things to say about maturity, and nothing good about baby talk or childishness. We have no ecstatic accounts in the Bible of babies, baby talk, or children’s play. The “Baby Jesus” is the invention of our modern emotionalism, not a Biblical principle. The focus was on the adults who worshiped the baby, not on adoration of “Baby Jesus’ sweetness.” At the age of 11 Jesus was intellectually and socially mature enough to survive for three days alone in another city, and even talking to and silencing the teachers in the Temple! Mary’s adoration of her baby isn’t in the Bible either; it is a product of our modern Roman Mariolatry, not of sound Biblical theology. And Jesus is not an exception. David was commended for his ability to maturely manage his father’s business and even kill lions and bears at an early age (1 Sam. 17:34-36). When Jeremiah objected to God’s call and commission to be a “prophet to the nations” with the words, “I am just a child” (Jeremiah was probably 11 years old at the time), God simply dismissed the excuse without even giving an explanation as to how a child could take on such a task (Jer. 1:5-7). One whole book in the Bible – Proverbs – is devoted to teaching children to become responsible adults from an early age.
Neither is the New Testament supportive of Piper’s praise of baby talk either. In addition to Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 14:20 we have Hebrews 5:11-6:3, where the state of “baby-ness” in knowledge and understanding is considered undesirable, and the author rebukes his readers for remaining on a childish level. In 2 Peter 3:14-16 Peter speaks about the “unlearned” who distort Paul’s words for their own destruction. Galatians 3:23-26 tells us that after faith came, we are no longer in need of a tutor in our childhood. In Ephesians 6:1-3, even children are not treated like children; they are instructed like adults, and are expected to understand the long-term connection between their obedience to their parents. John tells “little children” that they “know the Father” (1 John 2:12-13).
To summarize, it is maturity, not baby talk, and not childishness, that is the precious gift of God. There is no verse in the Bible that supports Piper’s claim. Childhood is a temporary condition, and the faster one gets out of it, the more blessed he and his parents are.
But Piper’s article is not simply bad theology. The fruits of his eulogy to baby talk may be dangerous for our generation, in a time when more than anything else we need real men who are willing and able to reach the level of Biblical maturity necessary to reform the church and redeem our culture. It is no mere coincidence that Paul places the talk about the difference between a child and a mature man in the chapter that is focused on the true Christian love. In the first half of 1 Corinthians 13 love is described, and we can easily see that the opposite of love is not hatred – in its modern use – but selfishness. And in a very real sense, the “perfect” Paul talks about may be indeed the perfect godly love, not necessarily the end of the world. If that interpretation is correct, then the difference between a child and a man would be the degree to which the person is selfish or loving, in the Biblical sense.
Indeed, those of us who are parents know very well what the main characteristic of a baby is: babies are selfish. They do not care for others, nor do they care for other people’s needs. A baby expects to be served always; he views the world through his own needs, whims, and desires. A baby doesn’t care if Mom is tired, or if Dad has to go to work early in the morning. It takes careful training and upbringing to teach a child to respect others and not first seek his own. If there is no good Christian upbringing, a selfish baby grows up to be a selfish – that is, childish – man. A childish 40-year-old man or woman is an ugly thing to watch. Very seldom would someone call baby talk in a grown up man a “precious gift.” Such a man is not a blessing, but a curse to himself, to his family, and to his community.
And indeed, much of the modern Reformed churches are full with people who are childish, that is, selfish. I have argued in another place that the “modern Reformed” are no different from the “emergent church” movement – they are just a theologically correct version of it. They come to God not to seek His Kingdom, only their own salvation. Jesus, in their view, only serves the goal of the salvation of their souls. They have a theology that justifies their selfishness – a theology that diminishes the Kingdom of God to the Church only, and the Gospel to personal salvation and justification only. They know nothing of a comprehensive worldview, they don’t know anything about the Crown rights of Jesus Christ in every area of life, and they don’t care. Neither do they care for leaving a Christian culture for their children and grandchildren, nor about discipling the nations, as the Great Commission tells us. It’s all about their own salvation, they believe, and them only.
Piper’s article will only reinforce such childishness and selfishness. Indeed, if we are permanent babies in this life, in need of constant baby talk, if even the Bible itself is baby talk, and if Jesus condescends to our baby-like condition, and if this baby-ness of ours is a “precious gift,” then why would anyone want to grow in the faith? Why would anyone invest years in careful study of the Bible’s commandments for all of life? Why work to address our nation, or any nation whatsoever, why care that Jesus was given all authority in heaven and earth, if all that matters is that I AM SAVED? We are babies after all. There isn’t much we can do in this life. We must wait until the other life, when the perfect comes. Even with the Holy Spirit in us today, nothing of significance can be done. We don’t expect babies to build anything of significance, after all. Besides, why limit the “precious gift” to baby talk only? Paul says in the very same passage in 1 Corinthians 13:11 that when he was a child, he also thought and reasoned like a child. Why not declare a complete life of childishness a “precious gift” and do away completely with Biblical maturity?
The fruit of Piper’s eulogy of baby talk will be the further descent of the church to even more immaturity, selfishness, and eventually uselessness in the work of the Great Commission.
Contrary to Piper’s view, we need mature men today. We need men who will grow above the need for baby talk and baby food and will turn the tide in our culture. We must not be afraid of men who despise and reject baby talk – we must welcome such men. Far from being a danger, if our culture and our churches were full with such Biblically mature men, it would be a Reformation in our churches, and a restoration of our culture. Baby talk is not a “precious gift”; it is an ugly sight when coming out of grown men, men who should have become adults and teachers by now, but who still need baby food. Our church today, and our culture today, doesn’t need more reinforcement of its childishness; modern Christians don’t need the help, they are pretty skillful already in remaining on a baby level. Contrary to Piper, Jesus is not a babysitter in our human nursery; He is the Master, Lord, Teacher, and God among His brethren, of whom He expects to “understand the times and know what Israel should do” (1 Chr. 12:32). Emotions are a beautiful thing but we as Reformed Christians cannot allow our theology to follow our emotions. John Piper should know this truth better than anyone of us.