God's Priorities in Phil 1:9-11

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As I was thinking through the following prayer of Paul last week, several things occurred to me:

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. [Phil 1:9-11, ESV]

The logical order here is almost the reverse of the order Paul writes it in. He prays for these believers in Philippi that their love would increase so that they'll approve what's excellent. He prays that they'll approve what's excellent so that they will be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. He prays that they'll be pure and blameless so that it will be to the glory and praise of God.

One thing to notice is that he prayed for their love to overflow in knowledge and all discernment. It doesn't serve the goal of approving what's excellent for them to love if they don't love in knowledge and all discernment, because love wrongly applied might lead to approving of what's not excellent. So I can understand why Paul would include that.

But I wondered what grammatical structure was really going on here. In which of the following ways is the prepositional phrase "in knowledge and all discernment" functioning?

1. The pool overflowed in the backyard.
2. The pool overflowed with water.

If it's the former, then he's praying that their love would overflow in the context of having knowledge and all discernment, so that the knowledge and all discernment can aid their love in serving to develop their approval of all that's excellent.

If it's the latter, then he's praying that their love would overflow with the knowledge and all discernment that their love someone is producing out of itself.

I first read it as the latter, but it seems unlikely that he thought love would be the generating force for knowledge and all discernment for the sake of approving of what's excellent. It seems more likely that he thinks love overflowing in an environment where there's knowledge and all discernment would serve approval of what's excellent. Love uses knowledge and all discernment to produce approval of what's excellent. It doesn't generate the knowledge and all discernment.

If this is right, then it provides an interesting motivation for seeking knowledge and understanding. Philosophers tend to approve of what we do because we think pursuit of knowledge is intrinsically good. It's good in itself to have a better understanding of what's going on in the world or of how various truths interact and explain other truths. Thinking through the nature of what's true is simply worth doing, even if it never leads to any good consequences besides a better understanding of things.

I don't see anything here to deny that, but I do see something here that might serve as a guide to a more important reason for caring about getting a good understanding of things. If knowledge is intrinsically good, that doesn't mean that there's no more important good that knowledge also serves. Paul seems to be taking the approval of what is excellent as a good that love together with knowledge and discernment can produce. I wonder if he'd even go as far as seeing that approval of what is excellent as a higher good. It is further along in his progress toward the goal that he says the whole succession leads to, which is God's glory. But that's compatible with every step of the succession being intrinsically good (contra John Piper, who on my reading reduces all other purposes to serving the glory of God).

If that's right, then the pursuit of knowledge might best be guided by a higher motive of trying to pursue and acknowledge what is excellent, which in turn should be pursued in significant part because it can be an aid toward more excellent living. If this is a higher purpose than mere understanding, then it might change which things we spend more time on thinking about and might focus our efforts to arrive at the truth in a direction that serves thinking about what's excellent for the sake of becoming a more excellent person. I'm not sure if many Christian philosophers spend a lot of time evaluating which things they think about in such ways, but it seems to me that it could have a major impact on Christians in the discipline if they did.

One final observation: the fact that the series ends in God's glory might give pause to those who strongly resist the idea that God's glory can be an ultimate goal that love can serve. As I've already indicated, I don't agree with John Piper's view that everything God does, including the entirety of God's love, is purely for the sake of increasing God's glory. Such a view doesn't allow recognizing God's love as intrinsically good or recognizing the objects of God's love as intrinsically good. But it's just as bad, I would say, to try to resist Piper by denying that God can love people in part because it gives him more glory. If Paul can pray that our love would grow, with the eventual goal of bringing glory to God, then surely love doesn't rule out the possibility that it has a purpose of bringing such glory to God, and then God's love itself also must not be mutually exclusive of the purpose of bringing glory to himself.

It may well be that Piper is right in saying that everything God does he does to bring glory to himself. What I would deny is that that's God's only purpose in everything he does. I think Piper is wrong to give a reductionist account of God's motives, where everything reduces to his pursuit of his glory. But I wonder if those of us who question Piper on this can go too far if we insist that there are things that God does not do for his glory in any way. I think maybe the proper middle ground is to say that God does do everything he does for his own glory, as long as we also say that there are other motives God has for all the things he does that aren't merely reducible to his pursuit of his own glory. They're goals that have intrinsic worth of their own, and love is one of those.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

6 Comments

This may be as much a reply to the post on Piper you linked from this post as this post itself. I'd long been a little bit baffled by the pride of place that God's glory has in traditional Reformed thought on God's motivations and human motivations (cf. the famous Westminster catechism line). Recently, though, I've come to think that it may be getting at something really deep, and my way of understanding "God's glory" may allow us to say that God does everything for his glory without that entailing that his actions are, as you said in the previous post, "at the deepest level self-motivated."

Glory is a relational property: it is a DISPLAY (this fits with all the images associated with glory, like a blinding light). In the case of God's glory, what is it a display of? Presumably, it is a display of God himself -- his nature and character. This understanding solves a number of problems and even apparent paradoxes about glory. First, God is at once all-glorious and yet creation can glorify him (Van Til’s full-bucket paradox). This just reflects the fact that glory is a relational property. God’s glory is displayed in full among the persons of the Trinity, but the degree of display can vary within creation. Second, “display” is a sufficiently flexible word that it can accommodate the variety of ways that creation can glorify God. Inanimate objects “display” God in a different way than do thinking beings. Third, it accounts for the special connection that glory has to worship – worship is (among other things) a self-conscious display of God – without entailing that God is glorified only in worship. Fourth, on this reading, Piper’s claim that God created in order to glorify himself really starts looking quite similar to (but perhaps a bit broader than) the popular view that God created out of an overflow of his goodness. Glory in this case is a sort of self-expression, and so God created in order to express himself (which includes expressing his goodness, since that is part of his self, but also includes expressing his other attributes).

The point of this is that this understanding gives us a way to say that God can be fundamentally other-motivated even though his ultimate end is for his glory. One particular way God is glorified is when creatures come to have communion with him. When we have communion with him – “know” him, in the fullest sense – he is displayed to us. Our communion with him is actually CONSTITUTIVE of his glory. But surely communion with God is the highest good for us. So God’s glory and our highest good don’t come apart – our highest good is partially constitutive of God’s glory. So God can want his glory as his ultimate end and at the same time want our highest good as his ultimate end, since they aren’t different (the latter is part of the former).

Does this save Piper from your criticism?

My way of saying it is that glory is just the recognition of what's best, and God's glory is the highest glory, so God's glory is displayed both by God's being good and doing good and by our recognition that God is good. So God, in loving us, is displaying his glory. The two go hand in hand.

I don't think this saves Piper, though, because this is precisely what he denies. He doesn't think the motivation to love is the same as the motivation to love. When he responds to the objection that God is motivated by love, he flat-out denies that love and glory are on the same level motivationally. He says quite explicitly that God loves only to serve his glory and that he doesn't seek his glory in order to love. It's not symmetrical, and they're not equivalent. One is based entirely on the other.

He doesn't think the motivation to love is the same as the motivation to love.

Was the second "motivation to love" supposed to have "from" instead of "to"? Something else?

Something else. I meant that he doesn't think the love motivation is equivalent to the glory motivation, but I said love for both.

if God purposes to do all things for his glory, does that necessarily mean that his love loses its intrinsic value?

bruce

I say no, as long as his glory and his love can stand side-by-side as intrinsically-good purposes. Piper wants to reduce God's love to being merely a way of manifesting his glory, though, with no further motivation on God's part in loving people besides the glory it will give to God. You can say a lot of things Piper says about God's doing everything for his glory without going there, but I found a passage in The Pleasures of God where he does indeed go there.

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