I’ve been asked to comment on one aspect of John Piper’s theology. I’ll be commenting on some representative passages from two of his books:
Today—as in every generation—it is stunning to watch the shift away from God as the all-satisfying gift of God’s love. It is stunning how seldom God himself is proclaimed as the greatest gift of the gospel. But the Bible teaches that the best and final gift of God’s love is the enjoyment of God’s beauty.
i) This is true. But we need to be clear on how we are to enjoy God’s beauty.
ii) On a related note, while Christians ought to foster a heavenly-minded outlook, we need to be clear on the limitations of that exercise. As long as we’re living here-below, we cannot assume the viewpoint of someone living in heaven—for the simple reason that we lack that experience to draw upon. We don’t know, specifically, what it’s like.
To some extent, it’s unavoidable that we will use our earthly experience as a point of reference for heaven. And if the final state is earthly, then there’s a genuine correspondence between the two, although we must make allowance for obvious differences between a fallen world and cosmic renewal.
So how do we cultivate a heavenly-minded outlook? In part by developing whatever hints the Bible drops our way. And by extrapolating from our earthly experience. This, in turn, takes two forms: (i) mentally negating the sinful features of life on earth while (ii) mentally enhancing the natural features of life on earth.
iii) This is also bound up with your eschatology: with your view of the final state. If you subscribe to a Catholic view of the final state, where you equate the final state with the beatific vision, then this will be more ethereal. Heaven will be a negation of earthly experience.
If, on the other hand, you equate the final state with life on the new earth, then you will have a more positive conception of the afterlife. Your earthly experience will furnish a basis of comparison.
iv) We also need to distinguish between the intermediate state and the final state. When people talking about going to heaven after they die, what they have in mind is the intermediate state.
Here we can use our dream world as a frame of reference. We can also use the inspired dreams in Scripture to help us form a conception.
The critical question for our generation—and for every generation— is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?
i) That’s not a bad question, but there’s a danger here for creating a false dichotomy. For example, whatever friends I take with me to heaven will be better there than they were on earth. And they will be better on account of Christ. All their best traits will be enhanced, and all their sinful traits will be eradicated. So it’s not as if my enjoyment of their company is in competition with Christ. It’s not as if they take his place.
They are what they are because of him. They are more Christ-like in heaven. In their glorified state they reveal something of Christ. It’s a mistake to turn this into a rivalry of affections.
When I say that God Is the Gospel mean that the highest, best, final, decisive good of the gospel, without which no other gifts would be good, is the glory of God in the face of Christ revealed for our everlasting enjoyment.
Can we really say that our people are being prepared for heaven. Where Christ himself, not his gifts, will be the supreme pleasure?… Nothing fits a person to be more useful on earth than to be more ready for heaven. This is true because readiness for heaven means taking pleasure in beholding the Lord Jesus, and beholding the glory of the Lord means being changed into his likeness (2 Cor. 3:18).
The problem with this statement, and Piper makes a number of like statements, is that I don’t know what it means, exactly. He draws a lovely picture, but what does the picture stand for?
How, precisely, does he think we will experience Christ when we get to heaven? Presumably he doesn’t think we will spend eternity in a frozen gaze at the human face of Christ. So this is a metaphor. A metaphor of what? What’s the literal truth behind the metaphor?
Is he talking about the physical presence of Christ? Strictly speaking, the human body of Christ can’t be everywhere at once. Christ can’t be physically present to 10 billion saints at one time.
Does Piper think that each of us will enjoy individual access to Christ? That we will be in his company everyday, the way a man can be with his wife day in and day out?
Or does he think it will be in small groups? Or even mass gatherings?
I’m not being facetious. I’m genuinely curious about what he has in mind. And I’m not trying to raise logistical problems.
Although the human body of Christ can’t be everywhere at once, yet it’s possible for Christ to manifest himself in more than one place at a time. A Christophany.
But I’d like to know, specifically and literally, what Piper envisions. It’s an important question because he’s telling Christians they should be more heavenly-minded. But, in that event, we need to have the target in plain sight. Before we can contemplate heaven, we need a clear idea of what heaven is like.
Does he think Jesus will walk with us and talk with us? I don’t believe there’s any logistical impediment to that arrangement, if this is what he has in mind. But I’d like a clearer idea of what the picture-language stands for. What is the actual object of our mediation? What are we supposed to imagine when Piper admonishes his fellow Christians to be more heavenly-minded? What should we anticipate when we look forward to heaven?
My concern is the Piper is trying to instill a sense of obligation on the part of Christians. Change their outlook. Discourage them from one way of looking at the world, and encourage them to replace that with a different outlook—both about this world and the world to come.
There’s nothing wrong with that as long as he’s correct. But there’s a danger, here, of making us dissatisfied for no good reason. Making us feel unhappy or guilty about innocent pleasures.
Conversely, there’s the corollary danger of trying to implant an artificial feeling to take its place. An artificial feeling we don’t have and can’t have. We try to suppress our natural longings and then attempt to muster other longings to take their place. And when, despite our best efforts, we can’t bring ourselves to feel the way we’re “supposed” to feel, we become discouraged.
But what if we’re missing the target because we’re aiming at the wrong target? It’s a target we can never hit because we were never meant to hit that target. That’s not what heaven is really like. We don’t yearn for that outcome because we weren’t designed to feel that way.
Why does he call us “adulteresses” when we pray? It’s because we ask God for things to indulge our desires that are not desires for him.
In other words, gratitude that is pleasing to God is not first a delight in the benefits God gives (though that will be part of it).
The problem with this—and Piper makes many like statements—is the implication that we should desire God for himself and in himself—in contrast to what he’s made or what he does for us. The problem with this is twofold:
i) There’s an asymmetry between God’s love for us and our love for God. God’s love for the elect is truly disinterested. God has nothing to gain. He doesn’t love us because he needs us or wants something from us.
By contrast, we are needy, dependent creatures. Indeed, that’s intrinsic to our creatureliness. Therefore, our love of God can never be purely disinterested. While it may seem pious to put it that way, and sincerely so, it actually infringes on the categorical difference between the Creator and the creature. We creatures cannot duplicate that kind of love. That is distinctive to God.
As such, it’s psychologically and metaphysically artificial to hold human beings to this inhuman standard.
ii) In addition, what is God like in himself? Well, God exists outside of time and space. This means that, metaphysically speaking, God is utterly remote from human experience. His mode of subsistence is far removed from our own.
As a consequence, we have no direct access to God. No direct experience of God.
As such, God must make himself available to us. And he does so through creaturely means. That’s the only way of experiencing God. God in himself is forever out of reach.
So it’s artificial to suggest that we should value God in himself, apart from what he does. Apart from what he made.
To take an example, the Berlin wall divided families. They could no longer see each other, touch each other, or to speak to each other face-to-face. Suppose the only way I could maintain contact with my brother is through letters we exchange. It would be a bit artificial to say I should love my brother in himself, apart from his letters. For as a practical matter, that’s how he makes himself available to me. That’s how he comes to me. The letters are all I have of him.
Yes, the letters are merely a medium. They point to something beyond themselves. They point to the correspondent. Still, the medium is all I have. I don’t have the correspondent in himself. That’s why I have the correspondence. Yet there’s a sense in which I have the correspondent in his correspondence. That’s how he presents himself to me.
Incidentally, this is more than a metaphor. In the case of Scripture, this is literally true. While it’s figurative for natural revelation, it’s literal for special revelation.
Maybe our problem in dealing with God and the gospel is that we are not grateful.” Well, that is certainly part of our problem. But it is not our main problem. That diagnosis does not go to the root of the problem because it is possible to feel truly thankful to someone for a gift and not love the giver.
You would not be honored if I thanked you often for your gifts to me but had no deep and spontaneous regard for you as a person. You would feel insulted, no matter how much I thanked you for your gifts. If your character and personality do not attract me or give me joy in being around you, then you will just feel used, like a tool or a machine to produce the things I really love.
i) First of all, I wish Piper would draw a distinction between the reprobate and the regenerate. It’s true that the reprobate divorce the gift from the giver. They want the gift rather than the giver. But is that a normal dichotomy for the regenerate?
ii) Another problem with this statement is that God’s gifts aren’t like the average birthday gift or Christmas present or Valentine.
Generally speaking, when we give gifts, they don’t reveal very much about us. For one thing, we generally buy presents. Mass manufactured items. They were made by someone else. And their appeal is deliberately generic—to sell more products.
Nothing wrong with that. I don’t say this as a criticism. My point is simply that it’s easier to divorce the gift from the giver when the gift reveals nothing specific about the giver.
But suppose I’m a painter. For her birthday, I paint a picture for my wife—just for her. That’s quite different. I made that gift. I used my own talents to make that gift. A painting reveals a lot about the painter. About his personality. His values. His outlook.
Same thing with God’s handiwork. Yes, it’s other than God. But it’s inherently revelatory. When a Christian values something from God’s own hand, he automatically values something about God in the process. About his wisdom and power. That’s what makes it valuable in the first place. The divine craftsmanship. The beauty. The ingenuity. What is by God is about God. That’s built into the product.
Suffice it to say here that God created what is not God. Therefore it is good that what is not God exists. The reason that God created what is not God is that this was the best way for God to display his glory to beings other than himself.
And created media always succeed in that respect. Every divine artifact bears witness to the Creator. Sinners may resist that attestation, but it’s there.
Why did God create bread and design human beings to need it for life? He could have created life that has no need of food. He is God. He could have done it any way he pleased. Why bread? And why hunger and thirst? My answer is very simple: He created bread so that we would have some idea of what the Son of God is like when he says, ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6:35). And he created the rhythm of thirst and satisfaction so that we would have some idea of what faith in Christ is like when Jesus said, ‘He who believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35). God did not have to create beings who need food and water, and who have capacities for pleasant tastes.
i) This strikes me as a pretty bad argument. Why did God create sheep and design wolves to eat sheep? He could have created life that has no need of mutton. He is God. He could have done it any way he pleased. Why sheep? And why hunger and thirst? My answer is very simple: He created sheep so that wolves would have some idea of what the Son of God is like when he says, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).
And he created the rhythm of thirst and satisfaction so that camels would have some idea of what faith in Christ is like when Jesus said, ‘He who believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35).
Why did God create the nose? So that Calvin could compare the Scriptures to a pair of spectacles. You get the point.
ii) Piper’s argument is circular. It’s true that God didn’t have to make human beings—with bodies, senses, and appetites. But by the same token, if God hadn’t made human beings—with bodies, senses, and appetites—then there would be no need for spiritual metaphors drawn from the sensible world. Indeed, there would be no need for a divine incarnation in the first place.
So it’s inadequate to say that God made the sensible world, as well as embodied creatures, for the sole purpose of illustrating spiritual truths. For that pedagogical necessity is necessitated by a corporeal existence—not vice versa.
iii) I don’t object to the idea that God designed the sensible world as a metaphor for the spiritual world. That’s why natural objects function as natural metaphors to illustrate a host of moral and spiritual truths. But Piper’s getting carried away.
The deeper problem is his inability to think of finite goods as intrinsic goods. For him, they are only a means to an end. They have no value in their own right.
But that’s an odd way of viewing a divine artifact. To go back to my example, after the painter gives his wife a painting, suppose she takes one look at the painting, thanks him, then throws it away. For her, the painting isn’t worthwhile in itself. It’s only worthwhile as a token of her husband’s affection. Having demonstrating his affection by giving her this gift, it’s served its purpose. So she can toss it in the dumpster.
Is that the proper response? I don’t think so.
There is nothing in heaven or on earth that I desire besides you, O God. That must mean, first, that if every other good thing were lost, Asaph would still rejoice in God. And it must mean, second, that in and through all the other good things on earth and in heaven, Asaph sees God and loves him. Everything is desired for what it shows of God.
To begin with, this is a bit hyperbolic. Obviously Asaph had other desires. Natural appetites.
His exclamation is a way of expressing ultimate priorities through the use of hyperbole.
So the question must be faced: How do we use the created world around us, including our own bodies, to help us fight for joy in God? In God, I say! Not in nature. Not in music. Not in health. Not in food or drink. Not in natural beauty. How can all these good gifts serve joy in God, and not usurp the supreme affections of our hearts?
Our situation as physical creatures is precarious. The question we are asking is not peripheral. It addresses the dangerous condition we are in. We are surrounded by innocent things that are ready to become idols. Innocent sensations are one second away from becoming substitutes for the sweetness of God. Should we use mood music and dim lighting and smoke and incense to create an atmosphere that conduces to good feelings and “spiritual” openness? You can feel the dangers of manipulation lurking just below the surface.
i) First of all, we need to distinguish divine artifacts from human artifacts. In this life, a human artifact is bound to reflect an admixture of common grace, natural revelation, and sin. And the proportions greatly vary from one artifact to another.
ii) But that’s hardly comparable in the case of a divine artifact. As such, it’s a mistake to treat God’s handiwork as if it were spiritually perilous. As if you can only enjoy God’s handiwork in small doses—because it’s toxic in large doses. I don’t think that’s a proper attitude to assume in relation to what God has wrought.
Piper is far too fearful about the natural enjoyment of natural goods. Yes, this must be done in moderation. Yes, we must respect Biblical boundaries.
But we’re talking about something essentially good. And revelatory. Why shouldn’t we enjoy God’s handiwork to the full? Revel in the work of his hands? Indeed, glory in his handwork? Isn’t that a way to glorify God?
One of the oddities of life in a fallen world is that unbelievers value the gift rather than the giver while believers frequently value the giver rather than the gift.
In his autobiography, Kenneth Clark relays an anecdote about his mentor, Bernard Berenson. Berenson was the great art critic of his generation. Yet Berenson, who had seen all the world’s finest works of art, was a greater nature lover than art lover. There was a particular tree in the Florentine hillside that he would make of point of seeing on his daily walk. To Berenson, that one tree was the finest artwork he had ever seen. He never tired of seeing that tree.
Berenson was a reprobate. Yet he had a far greater appreciation for God’s artistry than many true believers.
iii) In addition, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being “manipulated” as long as you keep your sense of perspective. When I watch a movie, I know the director and actors are trying to manipulate my feelings. I consent to that manipulation. At the same time, I can withdraw my consent. I know it’s fictitious.
Likewise, listening to great religious music or seeing great religious art can be a moving experience. At the same time, we need to retain a sense of detachment. This is not the same thing as being in the presence of God. God didn’t make me feel this way. It’s the effect of the human artist or architect or composer or musician or soloist. It has this power because it’s harnessing divinely created media. But this is technology, not sanctity.
The Bible gives us good evidence that we should indeed be intentional about touching our joy in God with physical means. We have already seen in Chapter Five that seeing the glory of God is the essential and proper basis of our joy in God. We argued from 2 Corinthians 4:4 that the most central and controlling means of seeing God is by means of hearing the gospel.
So he uses “seeing” as a metaphor for intellectual perception. But that’s not the same thing as “physical means.”
I stress this because it is very easy for us to say we are thankful for the pleasures of sex and food, but never even take God into the picture. When that happens, the joy of sex and food is not joy in God, and is not spiritual, and is not an honor to God for his goodness. Enjoying God’s gifts without a consciousness of God is no tribute to God himself.
i) One of the problems I have with this way of putting things is that he treats the Godward significance of natural goods as if that were extrinsic to the natural good. So we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is a sign pointing beyond itself.
On this view, our religious response is tacked onto the object. Something extra. Something additional to, and extraneous to, the object in itself.
Once again, I think this fails to appreciate the intrinsically Godward significance of God’s own handiwork.
It reminds me a little too much of Byzantine monks who spend all their time reciting the “Jesus Prayer.”
Fact is—much of our inner, spiritual life has a subliminal dimension. It doesn’t need to be self-consciously pious all the time to be genuinely pious. Indeed, it’s a superficial piety that requires constant prompting to remember our lines. If we find God so forgettable, then our roots don’t go very deep. True piety should be more spontaneous. Something that wells up from below.
ii) In addition, Piper doesn’t seem to think that a natural good can be a good in its own right. For him, its goodness is purely instrumental. It’s only good to the extent that it’s a means to an end.
I don’t see the need to take such a reductionistic view of God’s handiwork. It’s possible for finite goods to be good in their own right—as long as we are mindful of their finite value. Finite goods can be both intrinsic and instrumental goods. They are intrinsic goods, but finitely good, as well as instrumental to a greater good.
Yes, God in himself is the summum bonum. But a divine effect of a good God is a good effect. A genuine good. If God is good, then whatever God does is also good.
One could argue that Piper is the greatest Reformed pastor of his generation. The greatest Reformed pastor since Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was—in turn—the greatest Reformed pastor since Spurgeon.
Piper is very influential, and deservedly so. But I have reservations about this aspect of his theology.