Moses and Paul: Christian Un-Hedonism

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It occurred to me recently that John Piper's Christian Hedonism is going to have a hard time dealing with two famous statements by Moses and Paul. For those unfamiliar with Christian Hedonism, see my Christian Hedonism and Wink's Why I Am No Longer a Piperite. The short of it is that Piper thinks true morality consists only and exactly in finding our eternal enjoyment in God. Consider, however, Moses' conversation with God after the golden calf incident:

The next day Moses said to the people, "You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, please forgive their sin -- but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written." [Exodus 32:30-32, TNIV]

Moses seems to be volunteering to have himself prevented from enjoying God, assuming he had some inkling of what blotting out of the book means. He must have had some, or he wouldn't have said it, even if he didn't have a full-blown concept of an eternal afterlife. He must have thought of it as involving something like a removal of God's blessing and a severing of the kind of relationship he had with God. This seems quite contrary to Piper's view of what Moses' moral obligation should be. Moses' willingness to atone for his people in this way is generally viewed as so honorable that no one should ever be expected to make such a terrible self-sacrifice. Piper has to see it as the most immoral of actions. According to Piper, he should have been seeking to enjoy God forever, and yet he's willing to violate the most fundamental obligation he has. Christian Hedonism leads to a very strange analysis in this case.

Consider also Paul's similar statement:

I speak the truth in Christ -- I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit -- I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. [Romans 9:1-5, TNIV]

If there's any doubt whether Moses understood the implications of what he was saying, I can't see how the same could be said of Paul. He should have been fully aware that he was wishing he could give up his own eternal enjoyment of God for the sake of the Jewish people who had rejected the Messiah. He's fully aware that such a transaction would lead to his being unable to do the very thing that Piper says is our highest duty. Now it's not really as if Piper has nothing to say here. He could say that Moses and Paul had a lapse, and they didn't realize that what they were saying was evil. Paul does seem to suggest that what he's considering isn't truly possible. That perhaps minimizes the full effect of my point. But it's hard to take into account the tone of this passage while thinking anything bad in Paul's willingness to sacrifice his eternal salvation, were such a thing possible, for the sake of his fellow Jews.

I don't see how Piper can see anything good in such a desire, whereas it seems to me that what motivates Paul and Moses is the purest of hearts. That means that at least something has got to be wrong with Christian Hedonism as it's standardly construed. The purest of motives surely will usually involve seeking the fulfillment of our desires in the only one who can fully satisfy them, the one who created our desires so that he could fulfill them to the utmost. But it's got to be more complicated than simply identifying morality with that enjoyment of God.

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16 Comments

Hauerwas has suggested, and I see no reason to disagree, that there is no reason why christians need to limit themselves to one particular category ofethical theory. Thus, at various times, the language of hedonism, of divine command, of obligations or duty, or even pragmatism might serve us well.

So I don't see that we have to jettison hedonism entirely. Piper's thought seems to be just something of an explication of the first question of the WSC. But you are certainly correct to point out that this is not a complete descriptor of biblical ethics.

At the time when I was wavering on Hedonism, I was reading Paul's epistles a lot. And it was precisely this passage in Romans that was the "straw that broke the camel's back" for me in regards to Hedonism.

I am almost certain that I have read Piper's response to one or both of the passages mentioned above. I can't recall where it was though. I am pretty sure that it is in one of his books in print and not the online only material. I don't know if the response was good though.

Paul Baxter said: "Hauerwas has suggested, and I see no reason to disagree, that there is no reason why christians need to limit themselves to one particular category ofethical theory. Thus, at various times, the language of hedonism, of divine command, of obligations or duty, or even pragmatism might serve us well.

So I don't see that we have to jettison hedonism entirely."

But that is the point of Christian Hedonism: it is mutually exclusive of all other theories of motive. It claims to be absolute, that no other motive is moral, or even possible. There is only one motive for any man (the pursuit of pleasure), not many. If you can successfully show many motives (like completely selfess love) then hedonism is simply invalidated.

If hedonism is invalidated, it does not mean that some decisions are not made of the basis of pleasure, just that not ALL of them are.

Piper's response in his books to Paul's wish is essentially that Paul did not really mean it. He does not address Jeremy's passage on Moses.

Piper's response to Paul's comments in Rom. 9 can be found in his book on Rom. 9:1-23, The Justification of God. He does not, there, make any suggestion that Paul is expressing some base or impure desire, whether due to lack of understanding or temporary theological and moral lapse. Rather he explains that Paul, in no unclear terms, has in the immediately preceding thought expressed that nothing can separate him from the love of God. Thus the expression, "I could wish myself accursed," is for Paul not so much a conative expression of his will that would rather him see his kinsmen according to the flesh united to Christ than he himself being united to Christ, but simply an example of Paul positing a clearly impossible situation to express the depth of his anguish.

It might be sort of like saying to my wife (sorry, I could not think of a better illustration off the top of my head, but the point I hope is clear): "I could wish I was a woman to know the pain of child-birth and thus be better able to sympathize with you." Such a comment does not suggest that I do indeed plan on becoming a woman and entering into labor for the purpose of sympathy. Nor would it suggest any of the myriad other implications would could be construed from it but were never actually intended however incomprehensible they seem (e.g. my desire to be a loving husband is trumped by my desire to be sympathetic). My point was simple and singular: I really want to sympathize.

It is, I think everyone would agree, a false disjunction to suggest that motive (any kind of motive) works on such an either-or framework of ends - either their joy in Christ or mine as my end. Perhaps, in fairness to Piper, it would be appropriate to give him the benefit of the doubt that he is able to recognize such an obvious complexity. Perhaps he is not trying to say the one excludes the other, and perhaps, if given a hearing in the appropriate context, he accounts for both desires in the ultimate desire to see and treasure the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

All this is to say we must take seriously the possibility of multiple levels of motive, and multiple levels of willing, and multiple levels of ends. In this way Piper is really just following (as in almost all of his writing on Christian Hedonism) Jonathan Edwards' subordinate ends and immediate ends and ultimate ends and chief ends which he lays out in The End for Which God Created the World.

Indeed, apart from the recognition of these multiple levels, Piper's discussions of love and motive and desire do seem unintelligible. But so, I suggest, would Paul's discussion of love in 1 Cor. 13 where he claims in the same breath that "love seeks not its own" (v.5) and that "if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing" (v.3). If Paul must come to a decision EITHER between caring about the faith and well-being of his beloved, OR caring about his own satisfaction in Christ, then in his first letter to the Corinthians, at least, he had yet to make a decision.

The same point could be made from Philippians 2. If he really does mean it when he urges the Philippians to "make my joy complete" (v.2) and that they (and he) should "do nothing from selfishness" (v.3) and "not look out for your own personal interests" (v.4), then he seems to either be working within of framework that harmonizes both desires and yet maintains a singularity of desire that enables him to function and pursue a real and definite goal, or he has sacrificed unity of purpose and prioritization and indeed clarity for the purpose of rhetorical and emotional effect.

Of course Paul isn't saying that it's either him or them. What he's saying is that it is him and so far isn't them, and it sure sounds as if he's saying that he would do the impossible if he could. That means he doesn't consider the value of his enjoyment of God to outweigh the value of someone else being able to enjoy God. A true Christian hedonist would. I conclude that Paul was no Christian hedonist.

I don't see the tension you see in I Corinthians 13. In v. 3, Paul denies a purely act-based ethics in favor of at least including something like motivation or virtue/character in the mix. Mere altruism, i.e. altruistic deeds without the right character or motivation. Then he goes on (v.5) to say that love isn't selfish. I don't see any way of putting those two things together to create a tension.

I do understand what you're saying in Philippians 2, but I think the main point to make there is to notice the difference between something's being self-directed and selfish. Brushing your teeth is clearly in your self-interest, and that's the primary reason we do it. That doesn't make it selfish. Selfishness is putting your own desires and interests above those of others so that we deny them what's good for them in favor or what we happen to want. Brushing your teeth isn't selfish. Neither is seeking to delight in others' good, as Paul does in this passage. He isn't telling them not to delight in anything. He's telling them not to be selfish.

Only if you confuse selfishness with delighting in things things (as Piper regularly does; see Wink's post linked above) do you need to get into this complicated levels of motivation stuff. We may be that complex at times, but the phenomena you're pointing out can be much more easily dealt with.

Will,

hedonism (or Christian Hedonism, if you like) doen't believe anything. It is simply a set of beliefs or system of beliefs held by certain people. If Piper or someone else wants to claim that hedonism is the ONLY true manner of moral discourse proper to christians, then I disagree. This does not entail, as far as I can see, that I cannot from time to time speak like a hedonist or recognize that scripture itself speaks in hedonistic terms at times.

This is another area where Stan Hauerwas has shown the poverty of how ethics is typically taught these days. Normally a number of meta-ethical systems are presented (deontology, utilitarianism, etc.) and the student is told, "choose one." Possibly Piper has fallen into this "choose one" trap. I'm not intimately familiar with his writings, so I'm just speaking broadly here. The idea that we have to choose some sort of ethical framework first and then procede to the relevant questions of the day is a rather starnge way of doing things. On what basis do we choose? What qualifications do we possess that would enable us to choose properly?

Contrary to this pattern, the most typical way christians have dealt with ethical matters has been to absorb, study, and be formed by the stories in the scriptures and to observe the habits and thoughts of other believers who have come before us (whether living or dead). In doing these things we hope to become the sort of people God desires us to be and to become like Jesus. Only after this process has begun can we begin to evaluate what relevance an ethical system might have for us. But the ethical system can never become primary.

I don't think Piper selects some ethical view from a list given by philosophers. He sees something that's genuinely in scripture, and he emphasizes how significant a theme it is in scripture. The problem is that he fails to make important distinctions and subordinates other themes to the ones he thinks are primary, when I think the biblical authors would be surprised as his taking their statements in a way that allows such a thing.

If it is of any help, thank you, Jeremy, for being direct and drawing things back to the main point I was trying to make. Even if related, I did go a bit off the topic in bringing in multiple levels of motive and multiple levels of ends.

My point was the Piper's whole contention of joy in God includes, not excludes or competes with, other people's joy in God. To the degree that other people rejoice in the glory of Jesus Christ, to that degree one's joy is multiplied. It doesn't strike me that he necessarily suggests one's own individual joy OUTWEIGHS another's. Instead it seems altogether clear from numerous places that Piper holds to the belief that they are the same pursuit. Joy in seclusion is no joy, or at best a withering joy. One's delight in God necessarily overflows by wanting to share it with everyone or it is no delight in God.

Getting closer to what seems to be the heart of the issue, Piper doesn't say "enjoyment of God" is the ultimate end, but the display of the glory of God is the ultimate end, and "enjoyment" is evidence of having seen this. It is emphatically not that one should value their enjoyment of God supremely, as if enjoyment and God were separable entities, the one - evidently God - leading to the other more valuable entity - evidently joy. No one values an abstract quality, we value a person or an idol; joy is the description of our relationship to that which we value. It is God which must be supreme and our enjoyment of him is our evidence that we have indeed seen and believed in him. A "true Christian Hedonist" would not say, then, that we should value our enjoyment of God supremely, but that we should value God supremely and enjoyment is an evidence of our having seen him truly, that is, an evidence of faith.

Furthermore, the very idea of self-love and self-interest on the one hand, and selfishness and self-centeredness on the other hand, is a distinction Piper readily makes in Desiring God (again following Edwards). It is this self-love or self-interest that Piper equates with Christian Hedonism. And it is the denial of this simple truth (we all seek our good, God's glory is the ultimate good) that seems to be what Piper views as the significant loss to the church as a whole today which needs to be recovered. The label and any of the other terminology of joy and pleasure are simply ways to make the this point shocking and awakening to a moralistic and decision-centered culture. If a critique is to be made, I would think it to be a critique of emphasis and of the use of hyperbole. But then, exactly what use or benefit or value, in the long run, is a critique of emphasis (excluding, of course, obvious and gross over- or under-emphasis)?

Which brings me to one more point, namely, that Piper, I don't think, would view his hedonistic message to be so much along the lines of the organizing principle of Scripture that you seem to suggest he is making it. He is just taking what is, as you say, genuinely in Scripture, and emphasizing it in Scripture to waken people up to their idolatries. Many other ways of doing this are possible, as indeed Piper himself acknowledges in some places. But he also states that the language of joy and pleasure and satisfaction seems to be one of the most appropriate for the current state of the church, at least in the Western world.

To the degree that seeing and savoring God's glory in the gospel of Jesus Christ is biblical, however much the biblical authors may be "surprised" at Piper's application of various principles found in certain texts (rather than direct exegesis of those texts), my contention is that they would not claim a logical contradiction. We should remember that Piper is not exegeting texts in the vast majorities of his writings, but applying principles. He is, after all, writing to popular audiences, not the academy. Thus, we should not claim more for him than is warranted or necessary. We may want to argue that this is not the best or most appropriate way to waken people out of their sleep, but it would be a misunderstanding of genre and argument to think Piper, as a general principle in his writings, is trying to force the biblical authors to say what they are not in fact saying.

In any case, I really do appreciate these insights, both here and in Wink's post, and will continue to mull over the things you have brought up. I hope my inadequate and probably incoherent ramblings have helped spur further thought in you as well. It has been a very enjoyable discussion. I probably should get back to work now. Blessings in Christ.

I have no problem with saying that one person's delight in God can include joy at others' delight in God. That wasn't my argument. My argument is that for Paul and Moses to be saying what they say and really meaning it is to be willing to count others' delight in God as more important than their own.

A "true Christian Hedonist" would not say, then, that we should value our enjoyment of God supremely, but that we should value God supremely and enjoyment is an evidence of our having seen him truly, that is, an evidence of faith.

If Piper said that, then I'd be a lot less critical of him. It's because he doesn't distinguish between my enjoyment of something as good and what I value as good that this problem comes up. Augustine sometimes speaks the way Piper does, but when he's more careful he admits that the ethical life is really not about enjoying what's good and desiring God for oneself but more recognizing that God is of the highest value. Piper confuses those two things, and it makes it harder to deal with these Moses and Paul examples. If he distinguished them and then said what Augustine considers more fundamental, he could simply say that desiring your own enjoyment of God is not as important as simply wanting God to be glorified. But he equates the two.

Jeremy, I feel much the way you do in your comment on February 14. There is a sufficient volume within Piper’s writings to see that he suggests and teaches more than “enjoyment of God is simply one more evidence of faith.��? Piper does at many times teach that pleasure is the goal in worship (remember it is a feast where the emphasis is on what one gets) and that pleasure should be pursued.

This “pursuit of pleasure��? thing is a different view of life than I presently have. Consider my love for my wife--I don’t actually pursue my pleasure in her by trying to get my pleasure through watching her pleasure. Instead, I seek to give her all kinds of good (pleasure included) regardless of how she responds to it and regardless of how I end up feeling about it. I simply don’t buy into the idea that my pursuit of pleasure is the motive behind all acts of love.

Dan wrote:
“Which brings me to one more point, namely, that Piper, I don't think, would view his hedonistic message to be so much along the lines of the organizing principle of Scripture that you seem to suggest he is making it. He is just taking what is, as you say, genuinely in Scripture, and emphasizing it…��?

I must sincerely disagree with you, Dan. Christian Hedonism is so much the organizing principle of Scripture for Piper that his church has it written into their “doctrinal distinctives,��? in Desiring God Piper says it is the thing that turns faith into saving faith, and in his book, When I Don’t Desire God, he says all Christians must measure their spirituality against the standard of Christian Hedonism instead of the standard of God’s Word. In fact, Piper wrote that Christian Hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure) is the motive for all man’s work and for all God’s work. Personally, I would say hedonism is very much his organizing principle, and for so much more than just Scripture.

Dan also wrote:
“To the degree that seeing and savoring God's glory in the gospel of Jesus Christ is biblical, however much the biblical authors may be ‘surprised’ at Piper's application of various principles found in certain texts (rather than direct exegesis of those texts), my contention is that they would not claim a logical contradiction. We should remember that Piper is not exegeting texts in the vast majorities of his writings, but applying principles. He is, after all, writing to popular audiences, not the academy. Thus, we should not claim more for him than is warranted or necessary.“

Dan, again I must admit to some level of disagreement with your opinion. Principles of Scripture must always be derived from correct exegesis. Always. Just because the target audience happens to be the Christian mass market does not relieve an author from one ounce of responsibility to derive all his principles from Scripture though the use of exegesis. To the extent that Piper does not do so, he errs. If his principles are derived from philosophy then they are invalid as the basis for doctrine until he can exegete a passage of Scripture that plainly teaches such a principle. I would start with his very fundamental principle--that God commands us to pursue pleasure as our highest calling to such an extent that our preoccupation with pleasure merits it being called hedonism. I doubt that such a principle can be successfully exegeted from Scripture alone.

Dan, as you said, this has been an enlightening, and therefore a positive, discussion.

Jeremy,
Doesn't the Moses passage cause problems for more than Christian Hedonism? What about Luke 14:25-27? Doesn't Moses here seem to love the people of Israel more than God? There must be more to it.

If the traditional intepretation of Luke 14:25-27 is right, then all Jesus is saying is that you have to love God more than anyone else.

If my reading of Exodus 32:30-32 is right, then Moses isn't loving Israel more than he loves God. He was hoping his being blotted out would count as sufficient atonement for Israel. That means he's loving them more than he loves himself. It doesn't diminish how much he loves God, though, any more than Jesus' being willing to take the sin burden of the whole world means he loved the world more than he loved God. I don't see how such a thing would follow, in either case.

That's a good answer. I obviously have accepted the idea that to love another is to make maintaining a relationship with that person top priority - an idea which is false even in every day life (eg. a parent who loves their child will at times break relationship with them for their good).

My thoughts about the matter were a little too muddied to write in my previous comment (well, at least write coherently) but they were approaching your response. I'm coming at it from a shaky attempt to understand the relationship between love and glory, and I found it difficult to switch my thoughts to the framework of your post in the little time I gave myself to comment.

Looking at it again there is still room for questions about your reading of Ex 32:30-32: Moses may well have been hoping to provide atonement for Israel, but Moses' words can be taken another way.

Moses says, "But now, please forgive their sin -- but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written".

This sounds more like a case of, "If you are going to hold this against them, then hold it against me, also - I am no more worthy than they" - an illustration of Phil 2:3-4. This would line up with his reputation as the meekest person on the face of the earth (though so would your reading).

Alternatively, Moses could not want to go on with the reputation of leading these people out in the desert only to have them destroyed. However, this wouldn't line up with his meek reputation. Perhaps just the knowledge of such a situation was too much for him as opposed to his reputation.

Your suggestion that Moses was hoping to provide atonement is attractive, but his wording doesn't seem to suggest that to me. So, my first suggestion is my preferred reading...

Just thinking it through.

He does say "perhaps I can make atonement for their sin". He then does two things. (1) He asks God to forgive their sin. (2) He says if God won't just do that, then he asks to be blotted out.

I don't see how (1) constitutes seeking to make atonement for their sin. That means (2) must be his attempt to make atonement for their sin.

Ah, context. And to think, it was even in the passage you quoted.

Yes, I'll agree with you then.

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