Why I am a Trinitarian Hedonist

You might think I have it in for John Piper.  You’d be wrong.

I once spotted the great man at the back of All Souls (he’d come to hear John Stott preach).  I came bounding up to him after the service intending to tell him that I’d quoted him in my sermon that morning.  But for some reason I decided that this would be proud – as though I was bragging about being a preacher.  (I know that’s nuts.  But not as nuts as what happened next).  Having rejected my opening gambit mid-bound, I found myself in front of him with nothing to say.  And what did I blurt out?   I can’t quite remember it exactly but it was something very close to “I’m a big fan.”

Can you imagine a less Piper-esque line??  He didn’t know what to say.  Which made two of us.  The whole embarassing situation was only resolved when my wife, God bless her, held out her hand and asked him about his trip.

If you ever catch me shaking my head ruefully and tutting, chances are these 90 seconds are running through my head.

Anyway, I love John Piper.  I’ll never forget a mission trip to central New South Wales in early 2002.  I’d just read Desiring God and the idea of a happy God and that my satisfaction in Him was the way to glorify Him – it was truly liberating.  And I remember being inspired to greater service by my enlarged appetite for joy.  In 40 degree heat, I spent my time carrying around trays of ice-cold water for everyone and beaming at the thought of my reward (Matt 10:42).

And I loved (and still love) quotes like this from the opening of chapter 4:

Disinterested benevolence toward God is evil.  If you come to God dutifully offering Him the reward of your fellowship instead of thirsting after the reward of His fellowship, then you exalt yourself above God as His benefactor and belittle Him as a needy beneficiary – and that is evil.

In 2003 I ran a discussion group on Desiring God and enthusiastically recommended it.  But with one significant caveat.  Chapter 1!  I didn’t like chapter 1.  I lacked a lot of the vocabulary to articulate what I didn’t like, but I didn’t like it.  And neither did anyone else in the discussion group.

Chapter 1 sets out the foundation for Christian Hedonism – the happiness of God.  But the happiness of God is defined explicitly in terms of His self-centredness.  “The chief end of God is to glorify Himself.”  And this God-talk was not really trinitarian.  In fact, talk of God pre-eminently loving Himself came before talk of how the Father loves the Son.  First His happiness is spoken of as the glory of His unrestrained sovereignty, the magnification of His own divine perfections etc.  Then Piper turns to say “one of the best ways to think about” God’s self-glorification is to think about the Father-Son relationship.  Why?  Because the Son is the Father’s Image, therefore loving the Son is a way of God loving Himself.

Do you see the logic?  First it is asserted that God loves Himself – and this is supported largely on philosophical grounds (i.e. God’s the best, He’d be unrighteous to value anything higher than what’s best, ergo He must be supremely interested in Self).  Then he turns to Trinity and says, “See?  God loves His Image – He’s a self-lover.”

But if we begin with Trinity then the Father’s love for the Son reveals not a self-centredness but an other-centredness.   God is happy not because He is self-absorbed (no-one – not even God is happy in self-absorption!).  God is happy because He is other-centred.  There is an over-flowing life of mutual self-giving in the triune relations.  That is the happiness of God.  And that is what we are invited into.

So once we’ve made that correction I am happy to call myself a Christian Hedonist.  (How could a hedonist be other than happy to be so!?).  I continue to see problems in Piper’s doctrine of God and I still want to challenge the ‘glory’ which he speaks of.  But I’ve very much valued his teaching on hedonism.  And I think it can be strengthened (not weakened) by the insistence that happiness is found – from Top to bottom – in self-giving love.

Anyway, if you want to see how I ran the Desiring God discussion group – the handouts are here.  Session 1 is where I diverge from the book.

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Posted on by Glen in pastoral theology, trinity

About Glen

I'm a preacher in Eastbourne, married to Emma.

0 Responses to Why I am a Trinitarian Hedonist

  1. dave

    I think that’s might be why I prefered The Pleasures of God cos it has a whole chapter on the pleasure of God in his son which was what really blew me away.

    Looks like a good study guide – thanks for sharing.

  2. Matthew Weston

    I was going to ask whether you’d read The Pleasures of God, and what you thought of that – I’ve only read Desiring God – but Dave’s comment implies it might be okay in this respect. Any thoughts (if you’ve read it of course)?

    Also, I’ve really appreciated your discussion of the Piper quote recently; it’s got me thinking in ways I haven’t before and has been really helpful! So thank you :)

  3. Holiday Longing

    Why don’t you write Piper or send him this post? My sense is that he would always be open to correcting his theology if he could see it was more Biblical to do so.

  4. Heather

    I’m glad you posted this.

    Much of John Piper’s teaching has been helpful in getting me to see God as a beautiful and awesome Person instead of an abstract “concept”. We’ve only seen him on video but I am amazed at the way he tends to lose himself in worshipful communion.

    I remember thinking “I want that!”

    But I do think I understand what you are getting at because the emphasis on the “ONENESS” of God often is at the expense of the “Threeness”. Even though both are true, the delivery of a message can sometimes be really lopsided.

    And when listening to certain pastors, I tend to completely miss seeing the loving, nurturing facet of God because I’m busy looking for lightning bolts of fury because I fail to obey perfectly.

    I never considered before how much the emphasis on the trinitarian nature of God colors subsequent teaching.

  5. Heather

    “I’m a big fan.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Can’t help chuckling over this. The irony here amused me.

    Kudos to your quick-thinking wife :)

  6. Glen

    Hey Matthew and Dave,

    Yes I like the fact that chapter 1 of ‘Pleasures of God’ is God’s pleasure in His Son. It begins much, much better. And the first couple of sections of that are wonderful. Though I have reservations about sentences like this:

    “So when we say that God loves his Son, we are not talking about a love that is self-denying, sacrificial, or merciful.”

    I like CS Lewis’s take better (from the quote I posted a couple of days ago).

    But my problem comes on p18ff:

    “We may conclude that the pleasure of God in his Son is pleasure in himself. Since the Son is the image of God and the radiance of God and the form of God, equal with God, and indeed is God, therefore God’s delight in the Son is delight in himself. The original, the primal, the deepest, the foundational joy of God is the joy he has in his own perfections as he sees them reflected in the glory of his Son. Paul speaks of “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). From all eternity God had beheld the panorama of his own perfections in the face of his Son. All that he is he sees reflected fully and perfectly in the countenance of his
    Son. And in this he rejoices with infinite joy. At first this sounds like vanity. It would be vanity if we humans found our deepest joy by looking in the mirror…”

    All this wonderful trinitarian theology – and the conclusion is that God is a self-lover.

    Wonderful things are spoken of the Father-Son relationship but by the end of the chapter trinitarian talk is being made to serve a ‘God is self-centred’ agenda.
    And from what follows I think we can see a controlling logic that runs something like “God must supremely value what is essentially supremely valuable – only He is supremely valuable… ergo God must be a self-lover”.

    e.g. “How shall God not commit idolatry? There is only one possible answer: God must love and delight in his own beauty and perfection above all things.”

    I just think we *mustn’t* foist those kinds of “musts” on God. If the other-centred Persons in eternity decide to set their love upon the unlovely and thereby *make* it lovely – I think we should let them. And if the Father decides not to spare His Son in order to spare worthless sinners – then all we can do is stand back, mouths agape and say “Glory!”

  7. Glen

    Hi holiday longing,

    I think you’re right. Perhaps the most fruitful way forward for that kind of discussion would be to offer a ‘better’ exegesis of the ‘glory’ texts in the bible. (Something to engage that appendix from Desiring God maybe). I think that would show Piper that I was trying to engage him on biblical grounds.

    I may well do that. Let me think about it.

  8. Glen

    Heather – well might you chuckle. I can only groan.

    On the one-ness point. I’m all for one-ness. But I just think we need to be clear what God’s one-ness *is*. As Jesus prays in John 17:21ff He says that His one-ness with the Father was modelled in His followers’ oneness with one another. So the one-ness of God is Persons united in love (just like the church’s one-ness is persons united in love). So to say ‘one-ness’ is not to say ‘lightning bolts of fury’ (there are lightning bolts of fury with the Three! The Wrath of the Lamb and His Father (Rev 6!)) To say ‘oneness’ is to say ‘loving unity’.
    So when we talk about the One and the Three we’re not talking about hugely different things. The Three are just the particular Persons who are united as the One God. And the One is just the loving unity of those Three Persons.

    See what I mean?

    PS – I will get around to reading your posts soon!

  9. Heather

    Hm. The server apparently doesn’t want me to comment.

    Briefly summarizing my previous attempts:

    I hope I wasn’t offensive with the admission of my amusement. It reminded me of something I would do and I do think I’d be groaning too, if I was standing in your shoes.

    Yes, I do think I see what you mean about threeness as oneness. But for most of my life, I couldn’t see it because the interpersonal trinitarian relationship of love that God IS was never (to my remembrance) a central focus to most of the teaching to which I’ve been exposed.

    I always felt as though I was standing outside of God, being sprinkled with His excess goodness rather than being drawn into the relationship.

    I do appreciate your willingness to look at my posts. No pressure here as I expect you already have plenty to keep you busy.

  10. theoldadam

    Everytime I read or hear the phrase, “Desiring God”…I think of how untrue it is.

    We don’t desire God, in reality, rather we desire to be little gods unto ourselves.

    The Glory of God is that He loves us and died for us and will save us…anyway.

  11. Heather

    Old Adam,

    Certainly “natural” man has no desire for God. There is no way we can dredge up the desire on our own. But those who have been reborn in spirit are no longer dead inside and we are inexplicably pulled Godward.

    5 years ago, I might have totally agreed with your comment. I truly did not feel any “desire” for God and felt frustration and shame over my lack of zeal. The concept of “desiring God” is tremendously frustrating when *I* was under the impression that it’s up to me to grab hold of that desire for myself by working harder, praying longer, memorizing more scripture etc.

    The old and new must reside together within the believer, locked in battle in this cursed body until we are called out of this world. (Galatians 5:17)

    I never desire God perfectly or obey like I ought to. But a genuine desire is now, undeniably there. And it isn’t something that I worked into my own system.

    It is a gift that was handed to me AFTER I stopped trying to make myself love God.

  12. theoldadam

    Heather,

    Good points, my friend.

    I think as long as we realize that our desiring God comes from Him, and that left to our own devices we would reject God every time, we are alright.

    The Old Adam and Old Eve are always with us, as well as the New Man and Woman.

    I think if we out the emphasis on God and what He desires for us, it helps to keep us a bit more grounded and real and keeps us off the ladder climbing project.

    Thanks, Heather!

  13. Glen

    OldAdam and Heather,

    I don’t desire God. But Christ does. And I am in Him.

    When I rest in *that* – out of that grace I find love bubbling up.

    That’s the subject of this post: “When I don’t desire God, the King does.”

    http://christthetruth.net/2009/04/17/when-i-dont-desire-the-lord-the-king-does/

  14. theoldadam

    Right, Glen!

    Not trying to be too tough on John Piper, I always seem to feel that he is goading me on to feel a certain way about God.

    I much prefer the understanding that I really (down deep) don’t want Him…but that He wants me.

  15. Heather

    Thanks for the link, Glen.

    Yes, that is what I was trying to say.

    I often am brought around to ponder the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27)

    Awesome (if infathomable) concept, no?

  16. Heather

    Okay, so maybe “infathomable” isn’t a word.

    I meant to write “unfathomable”.

  17. Glen

    Just remember – it’s not simply God’s love for man that is grace. Man’s love for God is also grace once we understand it is *Christ* loving the Father on our behalf. We come to participate in that love by the Spirit. All of grace. But nonetheless a genuine human desiring of God.

  18. theoldadam

    Well, we certainly are a mixed bag, and we only desire Him on our terms.

    That’s why we continue to sin. We want to sin (we like it) or we would stop doing it.

    He said, “If you love me you will keep my Commandments.”

    I don’t know anyone that is keeping His Commandments.

    As my pastor says, “when He showed up on this tint planet 2,000 years ago, they did not want Him. And we stilll don’t want Him today. But He wants us.”

  19. Heather

    I’ve nearly had a meltdown over the “Keep My Commandments” instruction.

    God sent me back to the beginning.

    http://onmysoapbox2.wordpress.com/2009/11/09/the-slow-learner-contemplates-repentance/

    and then He graciously let me catch glimpse of a bigger picture of “The Law”

    http://onmysoapbox2.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/reading-lesson-2-jesus-is-the-fulfillment-of-the-law/

    Once I could see the root sin which is the fertile soil from which sprout all of my sinful behaviors, it took off a lot of performance pressure.

    Glen’s dragging his feet about grading my papers ;P

    But your welcome to come over and straighten me out if you like. :D

  20. theoldadam

    Thanks for the links, Heather.

    I’m interested in what you’ve written.

    I’m fighting the flu and I have to get up early and go to work, otherwise I ‘d look at them tonight.

    I’ll get over to check them out asap.

  21. Heather

    I’m fighting the flu and I have to get up early and go to work,
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    No fun. :( Hope it’s a quick and easy bout.

  22. Tylor

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the community of the trinity and this post managed to nail it for me.

  23. Glen

    Hey Tylor.
    Thanks! Welcome to the blog.

  24. Gav

    I’m with Tylor…..very helpful discussion guys. I’m expecting Desiring God in the mail any day now.

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