Saturday, May 03, 2014

What's wrong with John Piper's God?

John Piper's idea of 'Christian Hedonism' is influential. The book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (USA, Colorado: Multnomah, Revised Edition, 2011) from which the idea is found is a favourite read among many friends. According to Piper,
Christian Hedonism is a philosophy of life built on the following five convictions:
1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.

2. We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.

3. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.

4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.

5.To the extent that we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is: The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever. (p.28)
What is "perplexing", as Piper himself recognizes, is not these five points but the foundation he gave to them (p.32). To him, the whole vision of Christian Hedonism is found on God's own hedonism for Himself. As he wrote:
The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever. [...]

Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God’s ultimate goal. These He performs for the sake of something greater: namely, the enjoyment He has in glorifying Himself. The bedrock foundation of Christian Hedonism is not God’s allegiance to us, but to Himself.

If God were not infinitely devoted to the preservation, display, and enjoyment of His own glory, we could have no hope of finding happiness in Him. But if He does in fact employ all His sovereign power and infinite wisdom to maximize the enjoyment of His own glory, then we have a foundation on which to stand and rejoice. (Emphasis added, p.31-32.)

God has many other goals in what He does. But none of them is more ultimate than this. They are all subordinate. God’s overwhelming passion is to exalt the value of His glory. To that end, He seeks to display it, to oppose those who belittle it, and to vindicate it from all contempt. It is clearly the uppermost reality in His affections. He loves His glory infinitely. This is the same as saying: He loves himself infinitely. (p.41-42)
Piper went on to say that if God is not hedonistic for His own sake, then there is no foundation for Christians to have godly hedonism:
For the aim of the Christian Hedonist is to be happy in God, to delight in God, to cherish and enjoy His fellowship and favor. But children cannot enjoy the fellowship of their Father if He is unhappy. Therefore the foundation of Christian Hedonism is the happiness of God. (p.33)
While the foundation of Christian Hedonism is God's own hedonism for Himself, the foundation for the latter is God's sovereignty:
But the foundation of the happiness of God is the sovereignty of God: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). If God were not sovereign, if the world He made were out of control, frustrating His design again and again, God would not be happy.

Just as our joy is based on the promise that God is strong enough and wise enough to make all things work together for our good, so God’s joy is based on that same sovereign control: He makes all things work together for His glory. (p.33)
In summary, God's sovereignty makes Him happy, and only when God is happy, Christians can have joy in God.

I'm in agreement with Piper's exposition of God's sovereignty on pages 33-37: God's purposes cannot be thwarted (Isaiah 46:9-10, Daniel 4:34-35), God's sovereignty covers calamities (Job 42:2, Lamentations 2:11, 3:37-38, Amos 3:6, Job 2:10), God foreordained the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28), God in complete control of all evil agents (Revelations 17:13-14, 17, Proverbs 21:1, Ezra 6:22, Genesis 50:20), God hardens human hearts (Romans 11:25-26, 31), God's sovereignty is not compromised by reality of sin and evil in the world (Psalm 135:5-7, Proverbs 16:33, Matthew 10:29).  So, there is no problem with Piper's exposition of God's sovereignty.

My hesitation with Piper's idea is the inference he made from God's sovereignty. Does being sovereign necessarily mean that, (1) God is happy, and (2) God's ultimate aim is to maximize His own enjoyment of Himself, not to mention (3) God loves His own glory and Himself infinitely?

To Piper, Christian Hedonism/happiness/joy is only possible if God is happy. He wrote:
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). The implication of this text is that God has the right and power to do whatever makes Him happy. That is what it means to say that God is sovereign.

Think about it for a moment: If God is sovereign and can do anything He pleases, then none of His purposes can be frustrated....

Can you imagine what it would be like if the God who ruled the world were not happy? What if God were given to grumbling and pouting and depression, like some Jack-and-the-beanstalk giant in the sky? What if God were frustrated and despondent and gloomy and dismal and discontented and dejected? Could we join David and say , “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1)?

I don’t think so. We would all relate to God like little children who have a frustrated, gloomy, dismal, discontented father. They can’t enjoy him....

Therefore if God is not a happy God, Christian Hedonism has no foundation. For the aim of the Christian Hedonist is to be happy in God, to delight in God, to cherish and enjoy His fellowship and favor. But children cannot enjoy the fellowship of their Father if He is unhappy. Therefore the foundation of Christian Hedonism is the happiness of God. (p.32-33.)
Piper infers from Psalm 115:3 ("Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases") that God is a hedonistic/happy God. Basically, this psalm and Psalm 104:31 (cited on p.41) are the only verses Piper has to support his inference. But the Bible is ambiguous on this. 

We have passages that say God is angry (Deuteronomy 1:34, 37, 4:21, 22, Numbers 22:22, 32:13-14, 1 Kings 8:46, 11:9, Judges 2:20, 2 Chronicles 6:36, 28:9, Psalm 60:1, 76:7, 89:38, 95:10, 106:40, Isaiah 47:6, 64:9, Zechariah 1:2, 7:2, Luke 14:21). 

Some passages say that God's anger led Him to destroy those who frustrated Him (Deuteronomy 9:7-8, 20, 31:17, Isaiah 34:2). Other passages say that God regretted/repented (Genesis 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15:11). And others say that God punishes the condemned for eternity (Isaiah 66:24, Daniel 12:2, Matthew 18:8, 25:41, 46, Mark 9:47-48, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Jude 7, 13, Revelations 14:10-11, 20:10).

While there are only two verses that say God is happy, there are so many that say God is angry and frustrated. If Piper can infer from two verses that God is happy and build his entire Christian Hedonism on it, then how much more should he infer from the many verses that God is angry and frustrated and build a philosophy of Christian Rage? Given that there are many more passages on God's anger, shouldn't Christian Rage be a more defining philosophy of life than Christian Hedonism?

Of course, Piper knows that God is able to experience complex emotions that humans can't. As he explained the verses on God's regret/repentance:
God's heart is capable of complex combinations of emotions infinitely more remarkable that ours. He may well be capable of lamenting over something he chose to bring about.
Yet when it comes to his argument for a hedonistic God, Piper disregards God's complex experience of emotions that includes anger and frustration. To Piper, God is not only happy but aims to maximize His own enjoyment of Himself. Unless God is so, Christians cannot enjoy Him. As quoted from Piper above, 
What if God were frustrated and despondent and gloomy and dismal and discontented and dejected?.... I don’t think so. We would all relate to God like little children who have a frustrated, gloomy, dismal, discontented father. They can’t enjoy him. (p.32)
If Piper can recognize that God has the capability for complex combinations of emotions that is "infinitely more remarkable than ours", then he should think of God as not merely happy but, as attested by many scriptural verses, frustrated, gloomy, dismal, discontented, vengeful and destructive as well. 

Besides, if eternal condemnation is true, then God's anger and wrath is also eternally effective. As Piper himself acknowledges,
Whoever does not obey the Son, the wrath of God abides on them. And I presume that means forever. So God is infinitely angry at people in hell forever.... I don't believe in annihilationism. And I don't believe that it will be some pocket within the new heavens and the new earth. It will be outside.

But the main thing to say about the relationship is that it is one in which they hate him and he is infinitely wrathful towards them forever.  (Emphasis added.)
However, when it comes to the foundation for a philosophy of life, Piper ignores this other characteristic of God that he is aware of. His denial of the other aspect of God reduces God to just a happy hedonistic divinity (so that he can make this a foundation for Christian Hedonism). To Piper, God can only foreordained everything for His own happiness. 

I have asked above, does being sovereign necessarily mean that, (1) God is happy, and (2) God's ultimate aim is to maximize His own enjoyment of Himself, not to mention (3) God loves His own glory and Himself infinitely? 

As far as the inference from the Bible is concerned, the sovereignty of God is ambivalent. If Piper is to be fair to those other scriptural verses and his own acknowledgement of God's infinite and eternal wrath and anger, he should also conclude by the same inference that God is a sadist-masochist. That God in His sovereignty has foreordained the eternal infliction of wrath, anger and frustration on Himself by unleashing His infinite contempt and punishment on the unrepentant forever; The chief end of God is to hurt God and grieve Himself forever as well.
 
But Piper didn't do that. He only infers to the conclusion that God is hedonistic. Piper doesn't use the same inference for God's anger and wrath even though he acknowledges this aspect of God too. He denies the scripture's testimony on the ambivalence of God's sovereignty. Thus, it seems that Piper's theology of God's hedonism is grounded on his philosophy of life, Christian Hedonism. Not the other way around as he claims.

This is not to say that therefore Christian has no foundation to enjoy God. Christians through the centuries have been joyous in God before Piper wrote about the foundation of Christian Hedonism. We don't have to assume that unless God is happy and hedonistic (for God cannot be so reduced), we have no foundation for our joy in Him. In fact, we can be happy in God's sovereignty without His alleged hedonism. Or, why can't we be joyous in the sacrificial love that God demonstrated through Jesus Christ? Why must there be a deeper foundation than this? May be there is, but it is not what Piper has discovered.

On page 28 of Desiring God, Piper wrote,
This book will be predominantly a meditation on Scripture. It will be expository rather than speculative. If I cannot show that Christian Hedonism comes from the Bible, I do not expect anyone to be interested, let alone persuaded. There are a thousand man-made philosophies of life. If this is another, let it pass.
As demonstrated above, I don't think Piper's Christian Hedonism (with its alleged foundation) comes from the Bible. I will still look up to Piper's other works and ministry. I still share his understanding of divine sovereignty. But with regards to Christian Hedonism (and divine hedonism), I will have to let it pass.

3 comments:

pearlie said...

"But with regards to Christian Hedonism (and divine hedonism), I will have to let it pass."

I'm with you on this.

Niko D. M. Surya said...

A main problem here is that Piper doesn't take the trinitarian character of God sufficiently. "The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever," we should add, "as Trinity." The "Himself" here is the Father, Son and Spirit united in sacrificial love, glorifying one another.

Such de-emphasis of trinitarian-ity is possible because Christ is not foundational in the argument. But we believe that it is Christ’s work alone that may brings us into an enjoyment of the trinitarian glory.

The cross is not mere the bridge to glory. It is THE divine glory in which the trinitarian hedonism is possible. He is the foundation of such hedonism.

Niko D. M. Surya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.