Beware of Paul Tripp
By E.S Williams
According to the programme for Aberystwyth Conference 2015, “Every August, for more than 50 years, Christians have come together for a week on the beautiful west coast of Wales to be refreshed by the Word. Organised by the Evangelical Movement of Wales, the conference has grown to accommodate more than 1,500 Christians, but has kept a reputation for warm fellowship and plenty of opportunity to meet new friends.” One of the main speakers for the 2015 Conference is Dr. Paul Tripp.
Who is Paul David Tripp? And why should we, unlike the Aberystwyth Conference organisers, be on our guard?
At college Paul Tripp majored in Bible and Christian Education. He went on to receive his Master of Divinity from the Reformed Episcopal Seminary, and his Doctor of Ministry in Biblical Counselling at Westminster Theological Seminary. He was a faculty member at the Christian Counselling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) for many years.
Now he has his own incorporated “Paul Tripp Ministries,” whose mission is to educate and equip today’s Christian by combining the in-depth study of God’s Word with practical life application. Author of self-help books intended for a Christian audience, he is a popular and engaging speaker — humorous, self-deprecating, peppering his performances with Bible quotations, and offering clever (but psychological) answers to the common problems of daily living. He describes himself as “a thinker-guy,” a “theo-geek” and jokes that his signature moustache has its own twitter site.
In November 2013 Paul Tripp joined the Board of Advisors and Accountability (BoAA) of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Tripp says it was because of his love for the church of Jesus Christ, that he accepted the position. He explains: “But it became clear to me that a distant, external accountability board can never work well because it isn’t a firsthand witness to the ongoing life and ministry of the church.” When the controversy surrounding Mark Driscoll’s ministry reached boiling point, Dr. Tripp graciously submitted his resignation from the BoAA in early June 2014, according to Mars Hill, “so he can more extensively serve our church as a consultant.” Tripp was booked to speak at Mars Hill’s Resurgence Conference, October 2014, but following Driscoll’s downfall, the conference was cancelled.
We learn much about Paul Tripp’s ministry from his address to the third annual Liberate conference held at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida in February of 2014. Tripp’s topic at Liberate was “God’s One-Way Love and Personal Identity.” He introduced his talk with these words:
There is a plague that has infected the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a sad disease, it’s left us weakened, and broken and discouraged, and afraid. It’s almost no sooner than you come to faith in Jesus Christ than you get infected. And it robs you of your spiritual vitality; it robs you of your joy; it robs you of the rest that Jesus died that you would have. It reduces you to timidity, and doubt, and worry, and dark addictions of all kinds. It somehow, someway gets us all. It’s a communicable disease that’s ravaging the Church of Jesus Christ. The problem is that most people who have it, don’t know they have it. They actually live with the delusion that they are healthy and okay, when everything in their life points to the fact that they are sick.’ (In other words, this sad disease of the Church can only be diagnosed by Christian counsellors trained in psychology).
‘It’s a terrible disease; it’s one that needs to be eradicated. What is it you ask? It’s identity amnesia. We have forgotten who we are. And in forgetting who we are we frantically look for identity in thousands of places where it will never be found, places where you were never meant to look for identity. You probably do it so instinctively; you probably do it so frequently, you probably do it so naturally, you don’t actually know you are doing it. You’re so used to carrying the burden that you don’t know you are carrying the burden anymore. Your spiritual back has hurt you so long you’ve forgotten you’re in pain. I can make the confession that half the time I don’t have a clue who I am. Yes, I do have a name, I’m the Paul behind the moustache. Talk about identity, my moustache now officially has its own twitter site. Pray for that person, they are in deep need of this thing called life.
Without biblical justification, Tripp makes the astounding assertion that the Church of Jesus Christ is infected with a sad disease called “identity amnesia,” which he, as a trained psychological counsellor, aims to help eradicate. Thankfully for us, God has given the church its identity: in Scripture He calls “the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
Psychological thinking, however, explains identity history in this way. A person’s identity is his or her own sense of self; of who they are. Identity as a psychological construct has an interesting history. The term “identity” has replaced the older term “personality.” This replacement reflects a fundamental shift in emphasis from external to internal, from objective to subjective. Personality referred to the individual’s typical or characteristic behaviour. The emphasis was on objective observation. Such observations served to group behaviour into various personality types. For example, the “obsessive compulsive personality type” was composed of a set of typical behaviours that could be observed from the outside.
Identity, however, is quite different; it is supposedly an individual’s conception or mental model of the self, a product of private self-reflection and self-awareness. This so-called identity is entirely internal and subjective; identity types are defined not by observable behaviours but solely by the claims of the individual. Psychologists speak about identity as value-neutral; it is something a person is rather than what he does.
Psychological theory of identity claims that everyone has a compelling need for a satisfactory identity. Freudian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler popularised the belief that the necessary elements of a satisfactory identity are feelings of security, significance and self-worth. As with most popular psychological theories, this view has invaded the Christian counselling movement. An important conduit for this corruption was the work of Larry Crabb (Inside Out, 1992) and later Robert McGee who wrote the bestseller The Search for Significance (2003) founding the Rapha Christian psychotherapy enterprise. In that book, McGee helps believers heal from their emotional wounds. He states, “Since the fall, man has often failed to turn to God for the truth about himself. Instead he has looked to others to meet his inescapable need for self-worth” (Search p.25) He adds, “By imputing righteousness to us, God attributes Christ’s worth to us” (Search p.53) This view of man and God is the philosophical foundation of Tripp’s address to the Liberate Conference.
Tripp tells his audience: “You are in a constant conversation with yourself, and a principle part of this conversation with yourself is this topic of identity, you are always assigning to yourself some kind of identity, you are assigning to yourself some kind of potential. ‘I am, therefore I can.’”
He claims that the identity you assign to yourself dictates the course of your life. “You never escape the identity that you assign to yourself, ever.” And so come Tripp’s big questions: “Who do you think you are? Where will you look today, for identity?” Referring to the first five verses of Psalm 27, Tripp describes the characteristics of the Lord — the Lord is light; the Lord is salvation; the Lord is stronghold. Then he says, “What I’ve just given you is nasty, dangerous, bad theology — but it’s the theology, I’m convinced, that has infected the Church of Jesus Christ. Because what I have done is violence to the gorgeous identity comfort of this Psalm.” Tripp then emphasises David’s use of the personal pronoun, because David says, “The Lord is MY light, MY salvation, MY stronghold.”
He makes a profound statement: “I want to say, enough of abstract, impersonal, distant, isolated, informational theology, it’s not the theology of the Word of God; it doesn’t help us it hurts us … the theology of the Word of God, properly understood, never just defines who God is, it redefines who you are as His children … that two letter word my makes all the difference.” Tripp is saying that theology is not about understanding the character of God, but about the needs and comfort of man — theology does not just define who God is, it defines who we are. So the last thing we need is more informational theology about God.
To help his audience understand how he came to his low view of theology, Tripp relates his personal experience in seminary where he wept after analysing the first seven chapters of Romans. Instead of the apostle Paul’s “Oh, wretched man that I am” (Romans 7:24), Paul Tripp wept because studying the theological ideas of those seven chapters of Romans meant nothing to him — he had become a “theo-geek.” He needed his wife to reassure him that he could still be deep and personal rather than cold and theological. According to Tripp, she made him realise that he was okay without Greek and theology. He needed “rest from achievement” at that point, or he would have left seminary. Based on this experience, he urges his audience to come to this same realisation about themselves. “I’m okay, grace has changed me.”
Tripp assumes that the need for an identity of security, significance, and self-worth is real and compelling. The problem is that we look in the wrong places for this identity. The “inexhaustible grace of God” should be the source of a Christian’s security, significance, self-worth and rest.
Tripp claims that an information approach to Scripture is harmful. He says that such “nasty theology” promotes “lack of rest, timidity, doubt, worry, addictions.” Most importantly, it causes us to “forget who we are” and focus on our failings. Tripp says that the “Saviour has come to me and I’m okay.” Throughout his presentation, there are repeated references to the receiving of God’s grace/love but nothing about a resultant desire to return thanks, worship, confess, repent, turn from sin, or even share the comfort of such grace with others.
Tripp gives examples of a number of ways in which Christians look for identity in the wrong place — like ministry, or possessions, or relationships, or theological “rightism.” Tripp then makes his diagnoses: “you’re not just having relational problems, the problem is you’re an identity amnesiac, you’ve forgotten who you are, my doesn’t live in your life the way it should.” Tripp again refers to the first verse of Psalm 27, saying it should be taught not in relation to who God is but rather to “who you are.” He then asks the audience to “sense my passion” about the word my. “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”
With humour, personal stories, and emotion, Tripp warns his listeners, “If you make the darkness inside you your meditation, you’re going down.” He permits no thought that his hearers are already “down” in a vastly more serious manner than they realise. Jesus made it clear in John 3:18 that man is thoroughly down in being “condemned already.” Tripp is concerned with subjective feelings about oneself rather than objective Truth about the sinner. He does not expose sinful thoughts and behaviour with the probe of God’s word.
Tripp tells the audience they do not need more “ideas” or more of the “boring informational theology;” instead, they need his “deeply personal” approach. “The first verse of Psalm 27 is the only place where identity will ever be found.” He wants to be certain that the “my” lives in your life the way it should. He says, “My life has been invaded by this awesome grace. A Saviour has come to me, and I’m okay.”
Using his psychological lens, Tripp claims that King David understands the danger of identity amnesia. He understands that when his kingdom is at stake he needs to run to the temple and gaze upon the beauty of the Lord — “they can take my kingdom, they can destroy my family, but they can’t take my identity.” Tripp advises, “Run to his beauty … gaze upon the beauty of the Lord … his beauty unleashed upon you by his grace … live based on who you have become by gorgeous grace … afraid of no one, nothing.” This florid language communicates much feeling but no real biblical truth.
Tripp ends his entertaining talk with this instruction to his audience. “Start every day, not with making sure that you complete your Bible readings, so that at the end of the year you can say that you’ve finished the Bible once again, for the tenth year in a row, showing how spiritual are you. But sit with your Bible, and do nothing but gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. Just stop the study, stop the analysis, just gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.”
It seems Tripp does not regard reading the Bible as that important. He does not tell his audience that what he is promoting is contemplative prayer, a form of prayer widely practised by Roman Catholic mystics. Father Thomas Dubay, of the Society of Mary, an expert in contemplative prayer, explains “the kind of prayer Scripture calls the ‘one thing,’ [is] the most important activity of all the things we humans do in life, which is ‘gazing on the beauty of the Lord,’ as Psalm 27 puts it. Those seven short words are a perfect definition of deep prayer.”
Father Dubay writes: “Yes, you too — are called to the depths of contemplative communion with the ineffable God dwelling within us … This preparation for meditation can be done by recalling for a few moments the divine omnipresence, or the holy name of Jesus, or the indwelling presence in your soul right now, or a vivid scene from Jesus’ passion, or the presence of the Blessed Sacrament if you are in church or chapel, or seeing some mystery of the Lord’s life through the eyes of his Mother.” [Gazing On The Beauty Of The Lord by Fr. Thomas Dubay, Catholic Culture]
False view of Christian life
Tripp’s talk, which is based on psychological assumptions (not to say Romish mysticism), presents a false understanding of the Christian life, a misleading view of the Church, and a false view of God’s grace. True believers do not have an identity crisis, for they know their Lord – Christ in me, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). The Church of Jesus Christ is not ravaged by a communicable disease called “identity amnesia,” for it is the body of Christ, purchased by His precious blood. Informational theology is not harmful to God’s people, for they love sound doctrine. The apostle Paul instructs Titus, “by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.” Therefore Titus must “speak thou the things which become sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9 and 2:1).
Identity amnesia is a figment of Tripp’s imagination that comes, no doubt, from his psychological training. True believers are born of God’s Spirit and so are assured of their salvation and to whom they belong: “For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day’ (2 Timothy 1:12). Contrary to the teaching of Tripp, Scripture encourages God’s people to grow in true biblical knowledge. “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby’ (1 Peter 2:2).
Three friends, who had regularly attended the Aberystwyth Conference, were distressed at the way worldly culture was being embraced by so many evangelical churches, and considered that, far from addressing this issue, the conference was following this very trend. So in October 2014 they wrote to the new conference chairman, sharing these concerns with him. In particular, they expressed alarm that Paul Tripp was being advertised as a principal speaker for Aber 2015, when internet videos revealed that his manner of speaking and his handling of the scriptures missed the mark. What is more, his associations with Mark Driscoll begged the question where the Aberystwyth conference stood regarding this controversy. In reply to the letter, the chairman said he had noted the concerns but did not intend to enter into a lengthy reply or engage in any ongoing correspondence, but did assure them that the committee were always very careful only to invite speakers whom they had heard and were confident would preach the word of God faithfully in accordance with the EMW basis of faith. The friends were not reassured by this reply, and took the step of writing a second letter to each of the ten members of the EMW committee in January, telling them why inviting Paul Tripp was a serious mistake. To date they have had no reply.