October 21, 2014

A Quick Note on Piper’s Christian Hedonism

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

I will be discussing the nature of Piper’s Christian Hedonism in the near future.  But in thinking about some other things, I was confronted with Piper’s controversial (in Reformed circles) defense of a Christian self-interest once again.  To anticipate my conclusion, Piper’s understanding of things in this area are broadly agreeable, although, as I will explain, it can be made much better and overcome some (not all) of the concerns of its critics simply by leaving behind its emotionalism and embracing a pure intellectualism; wherein man’s satisfaction refers to the mental faculties, not the emotional ones.

Frankly, I’m not sure some of Piper’s conclusions can be avoided.  The critics often forget that Piper must be read in light of his (Jonathan) Edwardsian foundation, that is, they can’t successfully critique Piper without having first understood the philosophy of Edwards, especially in his essays on the nature of the “End” (goal) of all human action and the nature of the Will, and the nature of affections.  If Edwards, and therefore Piper, define all actions as a response to the desires of the mind, then it is tautologically impossible for one to act contrary to his desires.  There is no such thing as one who ignores his preferences and does “what is right.”  For all “doing” is a result of the decision-making role of the will.  Consider, for instance, Edwards’ words on the will and desire:

A man never, in any instance, wills any thing contrary to his desires, or desires any thing contrary to his will.

…but yet his Will and Desire do not run counter all: the thing which he wills, the very same he desires; and he does not will a thing, and desire the contrary, in any particular.

[…]

And therefore I observe, that the Will (without any metaphysical refining) is, That by which the mind chooses any thing. The faculty of the will, is that power, or principle of mind, by which it is capable of choosing: an act of the will is the same as an act of choosing or choice.

[…]

It is sufficient to my present purpose to say, It is that motive, which, as it stands in view of the mind, is the strongest, that determines the will. But may be necessary that I should a little explain my meaning. By motive I mean the whole of that which moves, excites, or invites the mind to volition, whether that be one thing singly, or many things conjunctly. Many particular things may concur, and unite their strength, to induce the mind; and when it is so, all together are as one complex motive. And when I speak of the strongest motive, I have respect to the strength of the whole that operates to induce a particular act of volition, whether that be the strength of one thing alone, or of many together.

If the will is the faculty that chooses, and the will cannot choose anything contrary to the desires, then it is impossible to conceive of a situation in which we don’t choose that which satisfies the chief desires of our heart.  Thus, to obey God without our minds considering this activity the most satisfying thing at the moment is an idea that runs contrary to the entire nature of man himself.  This is an anthropological consideration; can man distance himself from his desires?  Can he act contrarily to his own will?  Piper and Edwards say no, and to disagree seems to fly in the face of reason and consistency.

Of course, I readily admit that the above depends on a certain theory of the intellect, and the emotions were excluded, which Piper seems to lean heavily on.  But perhaps if we considered Piper in light of his Great Puritan influence we can save the overall theme.

It should be remembered that there is no righteousness, even in completely obeying the moral law, without inward purity, which is an intellectual reference.  When you read “inward” or “heart” you should understand that these are properly references to the intellect.  Gordon H. Clark notes:

But these external actions, even before the fall, would not have exhausted righteousness.  Righteousness also requires right thinking about God.  This point is more clearly seen when we consider man’s estate after the fall.  His duties, in addition to public worship, now include ministering to the sick and unfortunate, restraining sin and crime….  But none of these external actions is righteous or pleases God, unless motivated by righteous thinking. It is the intellectual activity that makes the external action pleasing to God.

Notice that Clark considers the activity that is pleasing to God intellectual, not emotional, in nature.  It is also relevant that Piper’s leaning on Edwards reveals a sharp difference between the meaning of “affections of the heart.”  For Piper, affections and heart refer to the satisfaction of an emotional longing.  For Edwards, affections and heart more properly refer to the mind, or the inner man.  The satisfaction of one’s chief desires is intellectual, for desires are intellectual.

In other words, Piper should not be thought of as telling is to start acting on our chief desires; he is saying that we already do and this cannot be stopped. What man is in need of is making God our chief desire, instead of the other things that we naturally desire. Piper’s goal is not to convince people to act according to what they think will satisfy them, he is saying that people cannot avoid acting according to what they think will satisfy them and therefore, God must replace whatever happens to be the chief motivation of the heart presently.

God is truth and truly only He can satisfy our longings.  We ought to read more scripture and therein be made joyful.  We ought to make God, who is Truth, the object of our affections.  We ought to pray that God might turn our will away from other things and focus it on Himself.  For unless God does that, there is no pleasing Him.  Perhaps God is most glorified when man finds satisfaction in Truth, which is not something that exists outside of God.

Perhaps Piper may not be agreeable in every area of Christian theology.  But this present issue is worthy of our full consideration.

______________

There is one objection that Piper’s Christian Hedonism (a phrase which I will consider in full) makes God a means to an end. This will be addressed in the future as well.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • You are a brave man in seeking to tackle this subject. You seen this post yet? http://1689nut.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/a-thoughtful-assessment-of-christian-hedonism/

    • reformedlibertarian

      Yup. I’m going to interact with it. I see some good and bad in Piper, but think the overall theme can be saved if we define some things. Unfortunately Piper is too much an emotionalist for me. But that post does a great job of breaking things down, even if I may reach different conclusions than its author on a couple things.