Posted by: Alex | July 9, 2011

Responding to Some Critics

My comments on Piper’s book have, not surprisingly, produced some critical responses from those more sympathetic to Piper than I.  Several of these can be read here, all written by colleagues of mine from Southeastern Bible College.  I have responded in part here, but want to make a fuller response on this site.  First, I want to apologize for the sarcastic tone of some of my responses to Dallas.  I have deep respect for him and everyone who has posted a comment on his response to my posts.  I confess that I am sometimes frustrated with the tone of conversations like this, and in part of my response I let that frustration show a bit too visibly.  This post is intended to promote civil and even-handed discussion, and I welcome feedback both on the content and the form of my comments here.

With that said, I think many of the responses made to me have substance that prompts a response.  A couple of the criticisms, however, strike me as setting a pattern for the discussion that is less than helpful.  So for instance, I have been accused of “character assassination” against Piper.  I wold like to point out that I have in multiple places complimented Piper’s pastoral leadership and ability to appeal to the entire “big tent” of evangelicalism.  There have been several chapters of his book, and many sections of other chapters, that I have been genuinely impressed with.  I even go so far as to say that I think his chapter on scripture would make a fantastic introduction to the evangelical view of scripture.  This is all to say that I have no intention of “character assassination.”  I disagree with Piper in many places, but disagreement with his theological ideas is not the same thing as an attack on his character.  Using the phrase “character assassination” results in this conversation starting with a tone that is simply unhelpful.

I have also been accused of “eisogeting” Piper, mostly because of my use of the term “philosophical,” which I should perhaps clarify.  I have a tendency to use the terms “philosophy” and “philosophical” in a very broad sense that essentially means “worldview,” without necessarily referencing the technical field of academic study.  I am contrasting this in my discussion of Piper with “biblical” argumentation/thinking.  The difference, to me, is this:  a “biblical” argument is one that is based on or dependent on the exegesis of scripture.  A “philosophical” argument in the sense that I have used the term here simply means that it does not depend on the Bible.  It is grounded in some other consideration, which could be any number of things, from logic to human experience to history, but does not require a scriptural basis to make sense.  It can use scripture, but its starting point is in some belief of presupposition that is outside the Bible and creates a lens through which the Bible is read.  In response to Dallas I have noted that in each of my posts I have been able to construct the main argument of Piper’s chapters without referencing scripture.  Each argument has, in other words, been grounded in something other than the Bible.  This is not to say that Piper does not quote the Bible, he does so profusely.  But never (with the exception of the first half of the last chapter of this book) does his argumentation explicitly depend on the Bible.  The Bible is always employed in this book as a secondary piece of the argument, as “supporting evidence” for what he has already said in his own words based on other considerations, never as the basis or foundation of the argument.  I think, given Dallas’ own comments about the use of scripture in the book, that I am not making this up, this seems to be our consensus of how scripture is used by Piper in Desiring God.  But perhaps there needs to be a discussion about what it means for an argument to be “biblical.”  On my understanding of what it means for an argument to be “biblical,” I don’t take Piper’s arguments as being such.  Thus, I have read them as “philosophical,” meaning that some consideration outside of scripture has formed the basis for the argument (and probably for Piper’s reading of the biblical text), so I have spent my time examining these considerations and not chasing down Piper’s exegesis.  If someone can offer a compelling argument for why Piper’s use of scripture works out to a truly “biblical” argument, grounded in exegesis, then I would love to hear it.  As an aside, I should point out that from my perspective, the term “philosophical” is not a slur.  Nor is the Aristotle code for “heathen.”  Plato and Aristotle are, in my opinion, two of the most profound thinkers in human history.  Also, philosophy is an incredibly useful discipline.  So neither the statement that Piper’s argument is “philosophical” nor the association of his theology with that of Plato and Aristotle are in and of themselves attacks, as Dallas and company seem to assume.  But it is not the same as making a “biblical” argument, which would be grounded in exegesis.  I don’t think Piper’s arguments in this book are grounded in exegesis, regardless of what he may have written elsewhere, and so I have by and large interacted with his argument as it exists in this book and not with some phantom exegesis that may or may not exist in another book which I have not read.

With these clarifications in mind, here is the summary of my criticisms of Piper as given by Dallas and copied verbatum in a comment on Dallas’ post by another friend named Austin:

1. He is accused of “creating a God of [his] own design,” which, unless these words have a new meaning that I am unaware of, is idolatry.
2. He is “dropping in proof texts to support his philosophy/theology and not working in the other direction,” which is a misuse of Scripture and essentially sinful.
3. He is “being disingenuous if he claims that his theology is coming strictly from the Bible and is in no way philosophical,” which is basically stating that Piper is on some level not being honest.
4. He is “guilty of fashioning a God of his own design,” which is more idolatry.

Points one a four are exactly the same and I don’t understand why both of my accusers have felt the need for such redundancy.  But whatever floats your boat, guys.  Points two and three are similar but not exactly the same.  I would like to say in response to point two that I don’t think Piper’s use of scripture is sinful.  I actually don’t have a problem with his use of scripture provided he is up front about saying that his starting point is not the text but some outside consideration providing the lens through which he is reading the text.  Writers use scripture the way Piper is using it frequently.  Scripture is part of our common cultural vocabulary, it gets alluded to or appealed to in literature and other writings all the time.  Often this usage is quite clever and beautiful.  Piper can do that, and make it very clever and beautiful, and I have no problem with him doing that.  This is not a sin, at least not so far as I understand it.  Perhaps I need to be corrected here in my view of what is a sin when it comes to using scripture.  But until that happens, I am not accusing Piper of any sin in his use of scripture.  I will, however, stand by point three.  My objection is not to how Piper uses scripture.  It is to what he claims about his use of scripture.  He claims that he is making his argument strictly from scripture.  My reading is that he is making an argument and then filling it in with scripture references.  My critics would like to claim that he has made the exegetical argument in other places.  That is fine and dandy for someone who reads Piper religiously, but for the average young Christian who encounters Piper as a charismatic preacher and writer and only ever reads popular level books like this one this does little good.  Further, I would contend that ideas like “Christian Hedonism” are necessarily philosophical and extra-Biblical.  Christian Hedonism, I think, is the lens through which Piper reads scripture, and in that sense is “philosophical.”  Again, this is not in and of itself wrong.  I don’t object to Piper having such a lens, even though I disagree with his lens for various reasons.  But what I do object to is Piper claiming that said lens does not exist, that he is garnering his Hedonism straight from the text.

Points one and four, which are identical, are perhaps the most serious ones.  My critics have jumped all over the association of Plato and Aristotle with Piper’s theology.  I would like to point out, as I have in my response to Dallas, that this is not arbitrary or based on some superficial connection.  It is based on my reading of the classical Christian tradition, which is overtly and openly dependent on these two classic philosophers.  My point in bringing the classic philosophers into the discussion is to focus on how Piper has deviated from the classical tradition in his Christian Hedonism and why his brand of the tradition is problematic.  It is also because “Hedonism” is the name of an ancient philosophical school of thought (also known as the Epicureans) which was closely related to the thinking of Plato and Aristotle.  Piper has borrowed the name of this school of thought and much of the classical theology that informed it, but as I have tried to show has put some twists on things that I think result in problems in the end.  I would also like to note that I have done far more than discuss classic philosophers in discussing Piper’s book.  I brought in Plato and Aristotle in the first couple of posts while we discussed the first chapter of Piper’s book where he lays the foundation for his system.  But in discussing the particulars of his theology as it develops through the rest of the book these philosophers have hardly been mentioned.  I have, however, pointed out ways in which Piper’s Christian Hedonism can, in my opinion, lead to a genie-in-a-bottle view of God or turn our service and evangelism into a game in which we are trying to win for ourselves and put another notch on our belt rather than being motivated by genuine concern for others.  In so far as this is true, I think that Piper’s deviations from classical theology, his Hedonism, is potentially (though not necessarily) the formation of a deity of his own design.  I want to be careful here in making a distinction between Piper in actuality and potentiality.  I am not accusing Piper of actually making a God of his own design, which would certainly be idolatry.  I don’t know Piper or his theology well enough to make such an accusation.  But I can say that Piper’s system is very open to the danger of devolving into such an idolatry, and from my interaction with many of Piper’s disciples I am afraid that such is often the case among his readers.

With all that said, I would like to again say that I have a great deal of respect for Piper as a pastor.  He is certainly charismatic and has driven a movement in evangelicalism that is quite impressive.  From all accounts that I have heard and read he is exceptionally sincere and compassionate as leader of his own church.  None of what I am saying is an attempt to drag Piper’s name through the mud.  What I am offering is an academic critique of potential problems in Piper’s systematic theology.

What I would be interested in hearing from those who have been quick to defend Piper are answers to a few questions:

  1. What constitutes an exegetical or biblical argument in theological discussions? When is an argument no longer biblical?  Does any argument that somewhere includes a reference to scripture automatically count as biblical?
  2. How do you deal the classical tradition’s reliance on Greek philosophy?  How does that affect our biblical exegesis?  Should it?
  3. Why should our personal self-interest be the motivating factor in Christian theology?  Is that truly biblical or is that the lens through which Piper is approaching the Bible?
  4. How can Piper handle the problem of evil or the problem of divine ego-centricism?  Do his answers in the book actually solve the problem or not (I don’t think they do, so you will have to convince me if you do buy his solutions)?
  5. How can Piper’s view of prayer avoid the risk of turning God into a genie-in-a-bottle?
  6. How can Piper’s views on missions and service avoid the risk of turning people into commodities?
  7. Why should we accept Piper’s claim that his Christian Hedonism is the only acceptable Christian theology?

What I’m hoping these questions will do is move the discussion past the gasp “he used Aristotle and Piper in the same sentence” gasp stage and actually constructively deal with the content of what I have written here and how I have read Piper (and move us past post 2 to deal with things other than the first chapter of the book).  If alternate readings of Piper that deal with the issues I have raised can be presented I want to hear them.  Cheers!

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