Theology: June 2005 Archives

[Note: I've post a slightly fuller, more philosophically detailed version of this post at Prosblogion.] Reading the reviews of Sex and the Glory of God, co-edited by John Piper (see Stefan Matzal's review, and then follow the links at the bottom for more) has gotten me thinking about what Piper calls Christian hedonism. Wink also told me recently that he has stopped believing in Christian hedonism after having been convinced by Piper that it's correct. So I've been trying to figure out exactly what sort of hedonism Piper endorses, because it seems to me that it simply isn't any of the positions philosophers have called hedonism. I'm aware of four distinct theses philosophers refer to as hedonism, each a kind of hedonism with respect to a different issue. I do think Piper holds one of them, but I don't think it's equivalent to what he calls Christian hedonism, which doesn't seem to me to be a kind of hedonism at all.

First, here is Piper's account of what Christian hedonism is (this is all directly quoted from Desiring God, p.23):

1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience; it is good, not sinful. 2. We should never try to resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
3. The deepest and most enduring satisfaction is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.
4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.
5. To the extent we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: the pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is, the chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying him forever.

I don't think this view is hedonism according to any of the standard philosophical views I know of that are called hedonism. (It's clearly not hedonism in the popular sense, but I'm concerned about the philosophical views called hedonism, which are what Piper had in mind in choosing the term.)

Rey asked in a comment on this post what the New Perspective on Paul is, and I decided my response was worth a whole post.

It's a three-stage thing. It started with E.P.Sanders in the 1970s, who argued that people have too harshly criticized first-century Judaism as legalistic and works-based salvation. He described the view not as earning a place in the covenant by works but as getting in the covenant by grace and staying in by works. There's general agreement now that he selectively picked evidence to support that, and the Jewish picture in the first-century was not monolithic. At the same time it's also not clear that this notion filtered down to the average person anyway. Still, there were people who said what he described the whole of first-century Judaism as believing, and it was significant enough that you have to be aware of that as you read Jesus' criticisms of the Pharisees and Paul's description of his past and the Jews in Galatians, Romans, and Philippians.

Dervish has an interesting take on the Jollyblogger posts on Hebrews 6 that I highlighted in my last post. She knows a whole lot more about the history of Islam and Muslim theology than anyone I even know, and she presents a historical introduction to various Muslim positions on salvation. Muslim thought on salvation, the losing of it, and the grounds of it as there are in Christianity, and some of these positions are remarkably parallel to some in Christianity.

Her initial point was that this undermines one Christian apologetical argument, an argument that says that Christianity allows for assurance of salvation but Islam doesn't. I think what she says also undermines one common charge against Islam, that it's a works-based religion with no room for God's grace. That's an unfair portrait of Islam, because some Muslim views are somewhat like Reformation Christianity in that respect. On the other hand, I do think what she's saying undermines a common Muslim apologetic. It's commonly asserted by Muslim apologists that Christianity is fragmented and sectarian, while Islam is not. Nothing could be further from the truth. There have been schisms within the larger umbrella of Islam, one very major one, with some of them leading to as much violence as any of the schisms within the larger umbrella of Christianity. There also seems to be as much variation within Islam theologically as there is within Christianity, so the unity argument in favor of Islam is simply historically inaccurate.

Jollyblogger has been doing a series on Hebrews 6 in anticipation of a sermon that I assume he gave yesterday. His treatment of the subject accords much with my own. He points out the need to avoid the Scylla of taking it to mean a genuine believer can lose salvation while also stopping short of the Charybdis of thinking it's not a warning to believers. He then presents the Westminster Confession on the subject, which says exactly the same thing. He starts his sermon here and reiterates his two main themes, emphasizing that all scripture is God-breathed and profitable for all professed believers, including a passage often dismissed as only applying to nonbelievers. He then presents the biblical support for the Reformed understanding of eternal security of genuine believers, being careful to state that salvation is a gift of God, not caused by belief, which is simply the evidence of salvation and not its originator. This is the objective reality of salvation, but it's distinct from the subjective experience of salvation. This subjective sense of being saved is neither necessary nor sufficient for salvation. He suggests that the author of Hebrews wanted Christians to be seriously considering the possibility that their sense of assurance isn't grounded in objectively being saved.

David moves on to distinguish signs of a true believer as opposed to a false oppressor, with an interesting result. The evidences of salvation include visible things like whether one's life is bearing fruit in good works. Is this performance-based assurance? David says no, because good works, while produced by one's own efforts, are more fundamentally produced by God's work, and therefore the good works are evidence that God's work is present. The assurance is thus based in the evidence that God has been working, not in mere works. Then he turns to biblical discussions of false professors, including calls to examine oneself to see if one is genuinely in the faith. He's not done yet, but this is plenty to begin with, and I'm looking forward to the rest.



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