Posted by: Alex | May 25, 2011

Introducing Desiring God by John Piper

The last few posts were written in Tennessee and set up to publish at a designated later time to cover the gap while I’m traveling. Writing this post and possibly one more while here in Tahoe with family for my grandfather’s memorial. We have internet access here and a lot of downtime, so I am able to get a little writing done on the parts of Piper’s book Desiring God I have read so far (and I should also note that I am reading the revised edition published this year). Wednesday (I’m writing this on Sunday and setting it up to publish later) we are driving down to Las Vegas to take care of the estate, and I will probably drop off the map for a few days while all of that happens. So here are a few thoughts to introduce Piper’s book and then we’ll pick up again when I get back to New Haven on June 1.

There is a lot in Piper’s writing that I can admire and appreciate. So this is not a total rejection of Piper. However, there are a few places that I want to push back against, and those are the things I am going to emphasize most in our discussion. By way of introduction, here are three things that show up in Piper’s introduction that I think will recur and will be major parts of our discussion as we continue:

First, Piper makes the same kind of historical claims that I critique others for making, namely the assertion that history fully corroborates their brand of Christianity and excludes others. Piper does this subtly in his introduction, starting off by writing, “You might turn the world on its head by changing one word in your creed. The old tradition says: ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’” (17, emphasis mine). What tradition is this a reference to? Piper doesn’t say here, but its the Westminster Catechism that he is quoting, which was written in the 1640’s. We should note that this is 1600 years after the New Testament. This is 1300 years after the Nicene Creed. This is less than 400 years ago. In what sense, comparatively, is this tradition “old”? Its certainly older than some traditions, but compared to other Christian traditions it is relatively young. Further, it is certainly not “the” old tradition. It is “a” semi-old tradition. The only reason I emphasize this so much is that in my experience this is a recurring problem among Neo-Reformed writers. I’m not discounting the use of historical voices. The Westminster Catechism is extremely significant for Reformed theology, and I don’t want to deny it that place in Reformed theology. However, I do not accept the move to then make this “the” defining tradition of historic Christianity. It is one voice, and a very significant voice, but it must be put in the context of other competing voices that have always and still do exist in Christian thought.

Second, Piper’s description of his reasons for coming to his theological convictions is interesting to me: “This statement so fit with my own deep longings… that I accepted it and have never found any reason to doubt it.” (19) I don’t want to push the language here too far. Piper is not trying to make a really strong argument with this statement. Not going to critique him as if he was doing so. But what I think this quote points to is something we will see more of in chapter 1, which is extremely important to the argument of the book. What I’m afraid Piper is doing is exactly what Hume will critique Descartes for doing, which is creating a God of our own design by taking our attributes and extrapolating them out to what we imagine would be the “best” possible expression of those attributes. What I will try to show in discussing chapter 1 (to give you a sneak peak) is that there may not be universal agreement about what this “best” possible expression is. If that is the case, then how we decide what that best is may be a product of what we ourselves desire it to be, in effect leading to a God of our own making.

Third, and what I will spend the most time on in later discussions, is that while Piper wants to deny that he is developing a “philosophical” system, arguing instead that what he is saying is straightforwardly biblical (25), it seems to me that there are a lot of philosophical ideas running through his discussion. Words like “virtue,” “pleasure seeking,” and especially “hedonism” are not biblical terms but philosophical ones borrowed, as our later discussions will show, from Plato and especially Aristotle. What I especially want to note is that while Piper is borrowing concepts hinted at in Plato and made explicit by Aristotle, what Piper is not doing is using much of any of the philosophy of the ancient hedonists even though he wants to adopt their title (in a supposedly Christianized form). Ultimately, I am left with the impression that Piper uses the term “hedonism” as a gimmick to turn heads and does not seriously interact with the philosophy it represents. He does this by widening the definition of “pleasure” to include everything any human might possibly decide to pursue and then pulling out Webster to give his word game credibility (moves he essentially admits to in the appendix “Why Call it Christian Hedonism,” though admittedly my tone is a bit more sarcastic than he would like). On the other hand, I have been so far very disappointed with his use of biblical evidence. Piper is, especially in his preaching, an excellent exegete of scripture. However, I get the impression in this book that he is dropping in proof texts to support his philosophy/theology and not working in the other direction. With that observation in mind, I am not going to interact much with his exegesis (there really isn’t exegesis in this book, just quotation, usually without explanation). Instead, I am going to go straight to the philosophy that I think lies behind the proof texting and interact with that. That means much of our discussions will involve more of Plato and Aristotle than of Paul. If I am unfair in doing that, then I ask you to draw my attention to that and defend Piper. Disagreement is always welcome here. What I hope to demonstrate, however, is how much dependence on Aristotle especially Piper is guilty of, and hopefully that will cause us to reappraise the biblical support for his model. Perhaps, at the end of the day, we decide that his model is philosophically sound and have a favorable view of his biblical quotation. However, I don’t think we can do that if we start by buying into the facade of this system being solely dependent on scripture that Piper wants to sell us in his introduction.

What do you think? What are your impressions of Piper? Do you believe him when he claims to be solely arguing from biblical evidence?

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Responses

  1. Alex, explain to me please how, knowing (as I hope you do) the Reformation’s reverence and respect for ancient creeds (though not to the extent of them being infallible and “God-breathed”), and knowing that Piper is certainly a student of the Reformation, explain to me how his quotation of the Westminster Catechism is a claim to historic superiority where somehow Christian history “excludes” other traditions? Although I think you are poking pin needles into thin air when you put so much weight on Piper’s use of the word “the”, surely this is not the only reason you would make this charge, is it? I don’t see much here in terms of Piper arguing that Christian history does not bear witness to other traditions. The issue as I see it is not whether history testifies to a particular tradition, everyone that I read and know acknowledges that history testifies in some way to different traditions, the issue is what is the testimony in light of Scripture. Is it a deviation away from the tradition “once for all delivered” or is it a tradition preserving the apostolic faith?

    As for your second comment, is there anywhere that Piper describes “where” his deep longings came from?

    Third, I would suggest that you take not a philosophical route, but exegetical. If Piper is eisegeting, the best remedy is to correct such with exegesis, and this I would like to see. I have not read this particular book, but I have read others. Not so much his popular books, but his technical ones, and it is pure exegesis. Thus my assumption would be that his popular books are the fruit of his exegesis, not philosophical persuasions of ancient philosophers of whom he probably has little to do. Anyways, if you insist on making philosophical arguments, please at least do some exegesis.

  2. Hey Dallas, thanks for the comment!

    I don’t think Piper is as bad as others about the historical exclusivity piece, if that makes you feel any better. He hints at it in his introduction but doesn’t really hammer on it like some do. So the concern is more a response to general trends in Reformed theology than a specific critique of Piper (though I was responding to his specific comments in his introduction).

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean by your second question.

    I will interact some with Piper’s exegesis when I think the exegesis is significant to his argument. I’m trying to follow Piper’s argument as Piper presents his argument as much as possible. So when that argument is really dependent on his exegesis of a particular text, then I will interact with that exegesis. When his argument is primarily philosophical with proof texts attached, I’m going to (for the sake of space) focus on the philosophical argument.

  3. You say he “hints” at it, but I am confused because I don’t see any hint of exclusion, unless there are quotations you may have left out that would further illuminate this point. Moreover, you said, “So the concern is more a response to general trends in Reformed theology than a specific critique of Piper (though I was responding to his specific comments in his introduction).” For the sake of clarification, are you referring to “Reformed theology” or “Neo-Reformed theology?” The reason I ask is, again, I think it is going to be a hard case to make to argue that Reformed theology somehow appeals to history in a way that excludes other brands of Christianity, such as Roman Catholicism. They never argued that history did not attest to Rome, they argued that the history showed a deviation within Roman Catholicism away from the apostolic faith. But if you are referring more to the “Neo-Reformed” movement, I would again ask for examples of a belief that history excludes traditions such as Roman Catholicism. I have not come across this attitude, and even if it is out there, certainly it cannot be a majority view.

    My second question was really looking for a fuller quotation of Piper. It seems as though you were pointing out that Piper’s theological convictions were founded upon “deep longings” he had prior to reading the WCF. My question was, does he anywhere in the larger quotation refer to these “deep longings” coming from his conversion and subsequent study of Scripture, or were these pre-conversion longings he already had?

    Finally, I still don’t understand why you think the bulk of Piper’s argument is philosophical. If he states that he is not developing a philosophical system, why not take him at his word? You state, “Words like “virtue,” “pleasure seeking,” and especially “hedonism” are not biblical terms but philosophical ones borrowed, as our later discussions will show, from Plato and especially Aristotle.” But does the fact that these terms are not within Biblical vocabulary necessitate the conclusion that Piper is now introducing philosophy, and not only philosophy, but philosophy from distinctly heathen sources? If I use the word virtue, does that mean I am borrowing from ancient pagans, or is it not a possibility that when I speak of virtue, I am thinking of distinctly Christian qualities. Perhaps if we look at those words and consider them only with reference to their diachronic values, we may conclude this, but when it comes to Biblical exegesis, appealing to diachrony almost always leads the exegete into error, so why would we do this when “exegeting” Piper? Why not consider what his words mean with reference to synchrony? How are these words understood in Piper’s mind today? It is here where I would have to disagree and suggest that to put Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy at the forefront when considering his vocabulary, when I am sure you will find little to no references to Aristotle or Plato, in an approving way, in his books or on his website, is erroneous. My suggestion would be to broaden your understanding of his exegesis. He may not be dropping Scripture quotations left and right, but you should have Scripture in mind, especially those which speak about God acting “for his own names sake,” etc., because that is what Piper operates under. It should be like reading Calvin’s Institutes. If you read the first four chapters of the Institutes, you will not find fifty plus Scripture citations. But to conclude that it is philosophy and not exegesis is to misread Calvin. All you have to do is read Romans 1 next to chapters 1-4 of the Institutes to recognize that Calvin is expounding upon Paul. These are merely suggestions. Take them or leave them, but I don’t think you will read Piper correctly if Aristotle and Plato is on your mind.

    • I would like to think that I am not accusing Piper of making a philosophical argument merely based on his choice of a few vocab words. While in this post I am merely introducing where our discussion will go, in more recent posts I have tried to analyze the philosophical nature of Piper’s argument in much more depth, making some explicit comparisons with the thought (not just the vocabulary, but the arguments) of Plato and Aristotle. Having studied both the Bible and ancient philosophy pretty extensively, it is my opinion that in the same way that Calvin may be expounding on Paul without referencing Paul, Piper is essentially reciting the arguments of Plato and Aristotle without referencing them. His main argument for Christian Hedonism in chapter 1 seems to have much more in common with them than with any particular scriptural passage. He finds lots of scriptural quotations he can use to seemingly bolster support for various steps along the way, but the overarching structure, the way he has strung all the pieces together, seems to me to come more from Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” than from any sustained discussion of scripture.

      This is not necessarily a criticism of his theology. Augustine does this explicitly with Plato. Thomas Aquinas does this explicitly with Aristotle. Luther and Calvin read heavily of both Plato and Aristotle (as well as Augustine and Aquinas). All four are considered by many (including myself) among the greatest theologians of all time. Two points that I might critique Piper for, though are (1) he is being disingenuous if he claims that his theology is coming strictly from the Bible and is in no way philosophical (as he does in his introduction and as I point out in this post) and (2) that his modifications to the classical tradition, his particular twists to try and establish “Christian Hedonism,” result in his system facing problems for which he does not have answers as I attempt to argue in subsequent posts.

  4. […] my friend Alex Marshall has been reviewing John Piper’s Desiring God. He has also reviewed several other books, but I was especially […]

  5. […] of John Piper’s book Desiring God.  The most popular post of the week continues to be Introducing Desiring God by John Piper.  Check out two other posts, The Foundation of Christian Hedonism in Desiring God by John […]


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