Posted by: Alex | June 3, 2011

The Foundation of Christian Hedonism in Desiring God by John Piper

Finally home in New Haven after a ridiculously difficult flying process.  Won’t bore you with that story, though it is quite a story.  For now its back to the books.

Looking at the first chapter of Desiring God by John Piper.  This chapter is extremely important to the argument of the book, I think, and we are going to analyze it pretty carefully (which means, be ye warned, this is a long post).  My initial observation is that I think two philosophers, Plato and Aristotle (particularly Aristotle), constitute the primary voices in this chapter, not scripture.  There are plenty of scriptural quotations, but they are not so much the basis of the argument as “supporting evidence” for what is essentially a philosophical discussion.  With that in mind, we are going to analyze the argument from a philosophical perspective.

Piper begins with a discussion of God’s sovereignty, which he takes as being all-encompassing and the only appropriate starting point for a discussion of “Christian Hedonism.”  Here is an illustrative quotation:

“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…  And if none of His purposes can be frustrated, then He must be the happiest of all beings.  (32)

Now when I first read this I was struck by the way the phrase “whatever makes Him happy” makes God seem trite and shallow.  Which perhaps contributed to my next thought, after reading the last sentence of the above quote, which was to recall the story of King Midas and the Golden Touch.  Here was someone who got exactly what they wanted, whose purpose could not be thwarted, and who ended up being miserable because of it.  Numerous stories and movies could be brought up that show similar themes- the annual Christmas viewing of “Its a Wonderful Life” is another such example.  From a human perspective, it seems to me that having the power to have none of your purposes thwarted or frustrated would be disastrous.  Having a divine entity with such power might seem terrifying (if that deity was anything like us).  This is actually the foundation of ancient Hedonism- the gods do whatever they please, leading to both calamity and blessing for people, but you never know what you are going to get.  Therefore, make the best out of what you have by living for your own pleasure.

Piper wants to take the “live for your own pleasure” and the “God does what he pleases” parts of that without the middle section of complete uncertainty about our fortunes (at least for some people).  To do that, he needs for God’s sovereignty to not be a terrifying prospect (at least for some people).  Which implies, then, that God must be all-wise and all-good so that his sovereignty works out for our good:

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.  (33)

Now what concerns me about this is not the attributes Piper is assigning to God- certainly an all-powerful, all-wise, all-good God is well within the traditions of Christian orthodoxy.  What concerns me is how Piper arrives at these attributes and how he uses them.  It seems to me that Piper is guilty of fashioning a God of his own design here: what do we want God to be?  The source of all joy and pleasure.  What do we need for that to work?  For God to be all-good, all wise, and all-powerful.  Therefore, God must be all-good, all wise, and all-powerful because God must be the source of all joy and pleasure.  To me, that seems like very poor theological method.

The obvious problem that Piper’s picture of the deity will run into is the infamous “problem of evil.”  How can an all-powerful, all-wise, all-good God who is the source of all our joy and pleasure allow evil to happen?  Piper works through several solutions to the problem, each time hitting a bump in the road.  We will work through each of those attempts at a solution here and make a few comments on each.

Piper’s first solution is simply to absorb the “problem of evil”:

Was Job wrong to attribute to God what came from Satan?  No, because the inspired writer tells us immediately after Job’s words:  “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10) [This strikes me as absolutely terrible exegesis of a narrative text, but maybe that’s just me.].  The evil Satan causes is only by the permission of God.  Therefore, Job is not wrong to see it as ultimately from the hand of God.  It would be unbiblical and irreverent to attribute to Satan (or to sinful man) the power to frustrate the designs of God.  (35)

In other words, the all-powerful, all-good, all-wise God who is the source of all joy and pleasure is also the source of all pain and suffering.  This is the closest Piper gets to the thinking of the ancient Hedonists whose name he wishes to steal.  The problem that this solution runs into, however, is that it leads to a seeming contradiction in God’s own commands and decrees:

How can we affirm the happiness of God on the basis of His sovereignty when much of what God permits in the world is contrary to His own commands in Scripture?  How can we say God is happy when there is so much sin and misery in the world?  (39)

Absorbing the problem of evil may work for ancient hedonism, but it doesn’t quite work for what Piper wants to accomplish, which is a “Christian Hedonism.”  So he makes a second attempt, invoking his theological hero Jonathan Edwards’ conception of two divine wills:

To put it in my own words, he said that the infinite complexity of the divine mind is such that God has the capacity to look at the world through two lenses.  He can look through a narrow lens or through a wide-angle lens.  When God looks at a painful or wicked event through His narrow lens, He sees the tragedy of the sin for what it is in itself, and He is angered and grieved; “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 18:32).  But when God looks at a painful or wicked event through His wide-angle lens, He sees the tragedy of sin in relation to everything leading up to it and everything flowing out from it.  He sees it in relation to all the connections and effects that form a pattern, or mosaic, stretching into eternity.  This mosaic in all its parts- good and evil- brings Him delight.  (39)

This solution turns out to be a bit of a twist on Aristotle’s notion of the deity.  In Aristotle’s system, God contemplates God because God is the highest being (Piper will eventually end up there, we will see, but right now he is tinkering with Aristotle to try and solve the “problem of evil”).  Piper has God contemplating God’s acts in history.  The problem for this solution, though, as Piper sees it, is that this could lead to a profoundly unsettling idolatry- God idolizing God’s own acts over God’s own self:

What we have not yet seen is how this unshakable happiness of God is indeed a happiness in Himself.  We have seen that God has the sovereign power to do whatever He pleases, but we have not yet seen specifically what it is that pleases Him.  Why is it that contemplating the mosaic of redemptive history delights the heart of God?  Is this not idolatry- for God to delight in something other than Himself?  (41, emphasis his)

Piper solves this problem of divine idolatry by adopting Aristotle’s conclusion outright:

He loves His glory infinitely.  This is the same as saying: He loves himself infinitely.  Or: He Himself is uppermost in His own affections.  A moment’s reflection reveals the inexorable justice of this fact.  God would be unrighteous (just as we would) if He valued anything more than what is supremely valuable.  But He Himself is supremely valuable.  If He did not take infinite delight in the worth of His own glory, He would be unrighteous.  For it is right to delight in a person in proportion to the excellence of that person’s glory.  (43)

For the sake of comparison, here is a passage from Aristotle’s Metaphysics:

The nature of the divine thought involves certain problems; for while thought is held to be the most divine of things observed by us, the question how it must be situated in order to have that character involves difficulties.  For if it things of nothing, what is there here of dignity?  It is just like one who sleeps.  And if it thinks, but this depends on something else, then it cannot be the best substance; for it is through thinking that its value belongs to it… Evidently, then, it thinks of that which is most divine and precious, and it does not change; for change would be change for the worse [since it is the best possible being, it cannot change for the better]… Therefore it must be of itself that the divine thought thinks (since it is the most excellent of things).  (1074b, 15ff)

There are three problems we can raise for Piper’s conclusion, I think.  The first is that where Piper ends up does not solve the “problem of evil.”  Divine contemplation of God’s own glory does not, as best I can tell, explain how evil can exist alongside an all-good, all-powerful, all-wise deity from which we derive all joy and pleasure.  Piper’s conclusion actually seems to me to be a negation of his earlier solutions.

The second potential problem is that it is unclear how a God whose sole object of affection is its own glory could act in history at all.  Piper seems to hint at this problem himself:

If God is so utterly enamored of His own glory, how can He be a God of love?  If He unwaveringly does all things for His own sake, how then can we have any hope that He will do anything for our sake?  (45)

This I think is one of the problems that ancient philosophers following Aristotle will face, giving rise to many of the ideas of ancient hedonism, and I will say more about Aristotle’s own solution to this problem in a bit.

The third potential problem, and the one Piper deals with most directly, is what we can call “the problem of divine egocentricism.”  In Piper’s own words:

If God were self-centered in such a way that He had no inclination to love His creatures, then Christian Hedonism would be dead, Christian Hedonism depends on the open arms of God.  It depends on the readiness of God to accept and save and satisfy the heart of all who seek their joy in Him.  But if God is on an ego trip and out of reach, then it is vain that we pursue our happiness in Him.  (45)

This takes us back, I think, to the foundation of ancient hedonism.  In the thinking of ancient hedonism, God does not care about us.  Therefore, the best we can do is is look to our own self-interest without being concerned about God.  Piper obviously wants to reject that notion- his “Christian Hedonism” involves our finding our pleasure in God- but he has accepted a view of the divine extremely similar to that of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers from whom the hedonists descended.  The “problem of divine egocentricism” is extremely significant to his system, then.  Piper proposes a solution, which I find extremely unsatisfactory:

The answer I propose is this:  Because God is unique as an all-glorious, totally self-sufficient Being, He must be for Himself if He is to be for us.  The rules of humility that belong to a creature cannot apply in the same way to its Creator.  If God should turn away from Himself as the Source of infinite joy, He would cease to be God.  He would deny the infinite worth of His own glory.  He would imply that there is something more valuable outside Himself.  He would commit idolatry.  (47)

God must be egocentric, and that is fine, Piper seems to say, because God gets an exception on the “rules of humility.”  It is, after all, God we are talking about.  This is what is known as Divine Command Theory- the idea that God commands things to us, but God is above the law so it doesn’t apply when God is concerned.  The problem is this quickly becomes arbitrary.  God gets an exception when it comes to humility, no need for God to be humble.  Now what about honesty?  Must God be honest?  What about murder?  Can God get away with that?  Some would say yes.  Others think that such arbitrariness would make God into a moral monster.  Which would bring us back to the foundation of ancient hedonism once more- don’t count on God, live for your own pleasure.

At the end of the day I think Piper is left with two giant problems still standing and no clear solution in sight:  The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Divine Egocentricism.  Both of these problems form the foundation of ancient hedonism- that we cannot count on God and should therefore live for our own pleasure.  They also negate what Piper wants to argue is a “Christian Hedonism”- finding our pleasure in God (how can we do that if we cannot count on God?).  Without a solution to these problems, Piper’s system seems unable to get a start, in my estimation.

The final problem I have noted for Piper’s system (the second one discussed above) is explaining how Piper’s deity could act in history at all.  This problem, I think, underlies one of the fundamental principles of both ancient hedonism and Stoic philosophies: that God is so concerned with his own glory that he does not care about us earthlings.  Therefore, what happens happens from our perspective and there’s no use looking to God for help or support.  Such pessimistic fatalism is certainly contrary to Piper’s ultimate goal.  Another solution to this issue is proposed by Plato and Aristotle, to whom Piper is greatly indebted for his view of God.  Their solution, as best I understand it, is to say that God does not act in history, we act out our love for God.  For Plato, God is the greatest good (the Form of the Good), and when we encounter this greatest good we are so overcome by affection for it that we then go about trying to replicate it in everything else we do.  For Aristotle, God is the unmoved mover, the foundational substance which underlies all other things.  It is able to set the world in motion while being unmoved, Aristotle argues, because all other things feel a longing for it which propels them to move (figuratively) toward it.  To some extent this seems more like what Piper wants to accomplish- both of these systems certainly posit that we love God (and would probably agree with Piper that this love is a source of pleasure).  But there are two subtle differences that are worth noting which I think Piper would gawk at.  First, we love God for who God is in both these systems and not for what God does for us- this is not a love because God gives us pleasure but a love because God is worthy of love, a love rooted in admiration.  Whatever pleasure we derive from this love is a side-affect, not the goal or object of our love.  The second subtle difference is that in both these systems God does not really “do” anything for us.  The unmoved mover does not redeem souls.  The Form of the Good does not create.  We admire God as a great being worthy of admiration regardless of what it does or whether we receive pleasure for it.  This is significantly different from Piper’s conception of God and our relation to God.  It should be interesting to note that much of the Christian tradition has generally followed Plato and Aristotle on the first point while breaking with them on the second (though, admittedly, how that works is not always clear).  Piper’s attempt to modify the Christian tradition to the purpose of promoting our own “pleasure” is what I think contributes to the problems he faces.

What do you think?  Can Piper solve the Problem of Evil or the Problem of Divine Egocentricism?  Can his system work without solutions to these problem?



  1. […] to work through John Piper’s manifesto, Desiring God.  Last time we dove headlong into a detailed philosophical discussion of the foundation of Christian Hedonism […]

  2. Does he help in this video?

  3. […] 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 Piper and Word Games and the Joy of Worship in Desiring God, for more on the discussion. Tomorrow I […]

  4. God’s law says love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and soul. IT doesnt say love someone else with all your heart mind and soul, so how exactly is God not fulfilling that when he loves himself? The problem with us being egocentric is that we are not focused on the best thing there is out there (God). There is no problem with God being ego centric, since that means that He is focused on the best thing out there (God). Therefore, Piper hits it right on the mark in regards to this topic.

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