Witherington Takes on Christian Hedonism

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.
Romans 15:8-9

In his book, Desiring God, John Piper writes,

God’s saving designs are penultimate, not ultimate. Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God’s ultimate goal. These he performs for the sake of something greater: namely, the enjoyment he has in glorifying himself. The bedrock foundation of Christian Hedonism is not God’s allegiance to us, but to himself.

If God were not infinitely devoted to the preservation, display, and enjoyment of His own glory, we could have no hope of finding happiness in him. But if he does employ all his sovereign power and infinite wisdom to maximize the enjoyment of his own glory, then we have a foundation on which to stand and rejoice. (31)

In case you missed it, Dr. Ben Witherington has written a critique of this idea of Christian Hedonism as well as Dr. Schreiner’s NT Theology in his post, “‘For God so Loved Himself?’ Is God a Narcissist?” Witherington concludes,

I suppose we should not be surprised that in a culture and age of narcissism, we would recreate God in our own self-centered image, but it is surprising when we find orthodox Christians, and even careful scholars doing this.

Recreate God in our own self-centered image? Quite the charge I must say. Denny Burk has written a nice response/rebuttal to Witherington’s scathing analysis. Here’s an excerpt:

Only with God is self-exaltation a virtue, since He is the first and best of beings, the only One who can satisfy the soul. When sinful humans exalt themselves, it is not loving because it is a distraction from the One who truly can meet the deepest needs of fallen humanity. It is a vice for sinful people to call others to admire them and so to distract them from admiring God. God is love. Therefore He must exalt Himself so as to draw people into worship. This is not narcissistic because it is no vice for Him to exalt the beauty of His own perfections for His creatures’ enjoyment and blessing. Witherington misses all of this, and like other Arminians, removes the firmest grounding that we have for God’s love—God’s own desire to exalt the glory of His own perfections.

Michael Spencer (iMonk) has chimed in over at The Thinklings blog.  Spencer writes,

Would that statement- God so loved himself that he gave…- disturb most young Calvinists today? I tend to think a significant number wouldn’t see any problem. Once you have a truth, you can over-compliment that truth to the point of distortion, lack of ability to read Biblical texts honestly, rejection of those who use different language than you do and overall clarity.

This is happening with sovereignty, God-centeredness, inerrancy. Piper specializes in the “highest” possible logical form of theological statement, to the point that theology that doesn’t join him at the pinnacle of language and illustration (rejoicing in God’s sovereignty after your child is killed in an accident for example) is doubt and heresy. . . .

I have a feeling this is what BW is offering: does Piper’s God “come off” as a Narcissist when we hold conference after conference and publish book after book saying all that matters is God God God?

This is why I call myself a Christian Humanist. The light of the incarnation is the light by which I know MYSELF as well as God. We matter. A lot. Not in ultimate terms, but in created, God-reflecting terms. But these theologians are on the path to saying 100 things about God and nothing about humanity except we suck and it’s amazing Jesus died for such scum.

I have heard arguments similar to what Witherington has posited, such as while we should be God-centered, God is man-centered. One particular article worth reading is Piper’s “Is God for Us or For Himself?” which was written at the start of his ministry at BBC (1980).  What do you think?  Do you think philosophical commitments have clouded Piper’s vision of biblical texts?  Schreiner’s NT Theology does not do justice to the love of God?

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17 Comments on “Witherington Takes on Christian Hedonism”

  1. Pregador27 Says:

    I understand what Piper is getting at, but have never been comfortable with the terminology. It just seems like embracing a worldly concept when it is not necessary. With that said, I think very of John Piper’s ministry and teaching otherwise.

  2. Pregador27 Says:

    That should be “I think very highly of John Piper’s ministry…” (sorry)

  3. Billy Birch Says:


    Did not Jesus Himself pray thus to His Father: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your son so that the Son may glorify You” (John 17.1)? I think that Piper is on to something, but perhaps people are misinterpreting what his message.


  4. I do think people are misinterpreting his message, and some (as in the case of iMonk) almost deliberately so.

    I just have one question that no one holding this perspective, whom I have personally talked to (meaning NOT online but in person), has been able to answer, at least not without fumbling and getting perturbed: Why is it so wrong for God to want his creatures to treat him as God?

    A follow-up question to that would be: If the answer is yes, then why is it so wrong for God to work towards this end?

  5. Zach Nielsen Says:

    “rejoicing in God’s sovereignty after your child is killed in an accident for example” – this is a gross misrepresentation of what Piper teaches in light of how to deal with a tragedy like a child dying. He needs to rewrite that one I think. For a good summary of what Piper does teach on these subjects you can find it here:


    I dig iMonk a lot, but on this one I think he needs to represent Piper a bit better.

  6. In certain circles (especially SBTS circles), Piper himself can be seen as almost infallible. Man, I cannot even say how much I owe to Piper in many ways. He is the most influential person in my spiritual/intellectual life. He is a big reason why I came to SBTS.

    Because of that I find it especially necessary to listen to thoughtful critiques of his theology.

    Sometimes, I think the “God so loved himself…” type of reasoning can indeed overshadow the fact that God does in fact love his people. A lot. God is completely self-exalting and profoundly self-giving. These two truths must complement each other, and not be pitted against each other.

    Witherington says also:

    I like the remark of Victor Furnish that God’s love is not like a heat-seeking missile attracted to something inherently attractive in this or that person. Rather God’s other-directed love bestows worth, honor, even glory. Notice exactly what Psalm 8.5 says–God has made us but a little less than God (or another reading would be, ‘than the angels’) and crowned human beings with glory and honor. Apparently this does not subtract from God’s glory (see vs. 1) but simply adds to it. God it would appear is not merely a glory grabber, but rather a glory giver.

    I think there is an element of misdirection and an element of balance here. First, God’s love is inherently a “heat seeking missile” — because it was first and eternally directed toward himself in triune communion. Still, it seems that triune love is a giving and other-directed love. God is a glory-giver, true, but his primary love is for himself. However, the element of balance here is that God truly does love people, and he actually loves them, often despite themselves.

    The rub, I think, comes in how we reconcile these two things. I think the Piper/Schreiner view is more compelling. But it cannot be so emphasized that we forget that God is for himself AND for us — in fact, that he is for us, precisely because he is for himself.

    God is King and he is Father. I have often overemphasized the Kingship of God to the exclusion of the Fatherhood of God (I don’t mean this in the liberal sense). This is not, of course, Piper’s fault. But I think the “Piperites” can exclude true aspects of God’s character and dealings with his people. We tend to lose balance quickly, whatever side we are on.

  7. […] But you might be interested in this. […]

  8. […] UPDATE III: Timmy Brister chimes in, and quotes me from a discussion at Thinklings. You might want to read that … […]

  9. To be fair to the iMonk, his comments do need to be read in context. I agree that there is a strong tendency to develop a version of “Reformed fundamentalism” in the same way there was dispensational fundamentalism. In the early 20th century, the Schofield Reference Bible ruled the day. And in that dispensational dominion, Schofield became almost as infallible as the actual text as his commentary was assumed more often than critiqued. This can happen today in the Reformed resurgence where the writings of Piper, Schreiner, and others are just as assumed.

    This kind of thinking I believe the iMonk has personally sought to challenge. If our Reformed brothers think that we should embrace the doctrine of justification as Piper sees is simply because he said it (Piper said it; I believe it; that settles it), then the iMonk crusade of correction is a worthy one. However, I am not as convinced that this is the case (at least not normatively).

    I am very much personally indebted to Piper and Schreiner in my theology, but I cannot, I must not, give them any more a pass as I do Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd, or Roger Olson. And I do not think Piper, Shreiner, et al., would want to have it any other way.

    With that said, I am a little taken back by the degree to which iMonk has pursued the critique of Piper (almost gleefully it seems). If the critique by Witherington is a preview of coming attractions, I am not convinced that the retorts to Piper’s theology will be all that convincing.

    One of the biggest issues in contemporary theology is how to understand, interpret, and use the “love of God” in one’s theology. This is an important discussion, because universalists will use it to argue that all will be saved, inclusivists will use it to argue that most will be saved, Arminians use it to vouch for unlimited atonement, and on and on. But how does the love of God fit in Reformed theology–one that prizes the glory of God and God-centered theology?

    One way to think about it is to say, “God is love, and therefore we should glorify him.”
    Another way is to say, “God is glorious, and therefore we should love him.”

    Is there any contradiction to these statements?

    I would say “no.”

    However, I do believe that many theologians today (especially in the Arminian tradition) are saying that love is God’s principle/chief attribute, and that all other attributes are secondary to this. This hermeneutical control certain regulates one’s theological formulation thenceforth. John Frame has noted this in his critique of Open Theism (I encourage you to check out his “perspectivalism” regarding God’s attributes). I agree with D.A. Carson who said,

    “I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God—to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity.”

    – D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 11.

    When I think of God’s glory, I think of the display of God’s manifold perfections, one of which is the love of God. When God’s love is seen and demonstrated, he is glorified. When God’s wrath is seen and demonstrated, he is glorified. God is no less glorious in his wrath than in his love. This idea, however, is detestable to many postmodern sensibilities. However, we must build our understanding of God and his schema of salvation from what he has revealed in Scripture. Again, Carson offers some good advice:

    “Permit the various attributes and characteristics of God to function in your theology only in the ways in which they function in Scripture; never permit them to function in your theology in such a way that the primary data, the data of Scripture, are contradicted.”

    – D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 286.

    That’s the key. How does the attributes of God function in Scripture? In salvation? When it comes down to it, from God’s perspective (and that is what I am after – not Piper’s, Witherington’s, Schreiener’s, etc.), I am strongly persuaded that God does all things for His glory and His name’s sake. This by no means diminishes God’s love or the value we have as His creatures. There is no dichotomy here, but I do believe that God can display His glory in other excellencies than His love; however, God cannot demonstrate His love and not be glorious.

  10. A few more thoughts:

    Think about the idea – God is glorious; therefore, we love him.

    How do we know he is glorious? God opens our eyes to see him this way. God is not seen as glorious in the world; therefore, the world does not love Him. Yet, what makes us desire to know God and to love Him is his infinite worth (i.e. His glory). Is this not what Paul was thinking when he said that the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God? (2 Cor. 4:4). The gospel is not a plan to get us to heaven; it is an awakening to the reality of God’s glory in Christ and our response in treasuring Him as such. And yet, our seeing God’s glory and treasuring Christ is only possible because of God who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

    We do not love God unless he is glorious. If God prizes anything greater than His own glory, then we should not love Him.

    Also, it is argued that a God who is passionate about His glory finds no place for man in salvation. Human beings are not seen as significant or possessing any dignity. Some handle this by saying that man can contribute to their salvation (synergism). I believe this view of salvation is faulty in a myriad of ways. However, can it be said that human beings are significant in the fact that God has given to us the greatest gift we could ever be given, viz. Himself? God has graciously revealed to us Himself in the giving of His Son that we might know Him and treasure Him. If God had given us anything less, He would not be loving, because what we needed the most is not to be praised but to be forgiven. Considering the gift and giver are altogether glorious, the fact that God would somehow include us in that pursuit of His glory is something that we are not entitled to but should be entirely grateful for. As the text at the top of this post reveals, we who are the recipients of God’s mercy should glorify God. Mercy is the means to the end – the glory of God.

    Consider the lyrics to this song entitled “sovereign grace.”

    Sovereign grace o’er sin abounding,
    Waves of love in power swell;
    ‘Tis a deep that knows no sounding,
    Who its breadth or length can tell?
    On its glories, on its glories
    Let my soul forever dwell.

    Sovereign grace,
    It reaches the depths of my sin
    And kindles a fire within.
    Lord, shed it anew
    And fix all my passions on You
    By sovereign grace.

    What from Christ my soul can sever,
    Bound by everlasting bands?
    Once in Him, in Him forever
    The eternal cov’nant stands;
    None can pluck me, none can pluck me
    From the Father’s mighty hands.

    Heirs of God, joint heirs with Jesus,
    Long ago this gift was won;
    To His name eternal praises!
    Oh! what wonders He has done!
    One with Jesus, one with Jesus,
    By eternal union one.

    On such love I’ll ever ponder,
    Love so great, so rich, so free;
    Ever asking, lost in wonder,
    Why, O Lord, such love to me?

    Hallelujah, hallelujah,
    Grace will reign eternally.

  11. Tim Powell Says:

    It does always seem to me that those who try to separate God’s self-interest from his love rob themselves of the very thing they’re seeking. I think people understand God’s pursuit of his own glory in some very narrow sense, that God is pursuing his own good and glorification somehow at the expense of others. But the Bible doesn’t have that understanding. Our salvation is staked on God’s spreading of himself, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

    What other way are we to define love? There is no way of biblically defining it so that every instance and mention of it does not turn on God himself. He loves us because we are his creatures, created through his Son. He loves us because we’re his church, elected and redeemed in his Son. And who is the Son except the one who exists as the fulness of deity in bodily form, the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being? The entirety of the outworking of the universe and his plan for the fulness of time to unite all things in Christ is then by definition for God’s own sake.

    I realize this is basically another sermon to a choir that could preach it. But I can’t see this any other way in the Bible. And maybe that makes this guy’s point more than anything. But I really don’t think I’m canonizing Piper (or Edwards, really). It’s not as if I’m in a dark room, and believe uncritically that everything is where they tell me it is. Instead ,they’ve just flipped on the light and now I can see what they see.

  12. drewdixon Says:

    Thanks for sharing this Timmy.

    I think this is an incredibly important issue for Christians to think through. I think asked the right question–why do we love God? Because he first loved us right. God is glorious, therefore I love him. We begin with God’s essential character and move on from there. Of course there is a temptation to remove ourselves from the conversation altogether and neglect to emphasize important issues in Scripture such the fact that we are created in God’s image and that God displayed his love for us in giving up his son to the cross for us. But we must begin with a holy God who is worthy to be worshiped and who is deserving of all praise. When we rightly understand the emphasis of God’s holiness in Scripture we will better understand and appreciate the redemption we have in Christ.

    That said, this comment by iMonk concerns me:
    “This is why I call myself a Christian Humanist. The light of the incarnation is the light by which I know MYSELF as well as God.”

    I don’t want to take this out of context but I am afraid that the incarnation is never set forth as the means by which we know God–we can know God because “Christ suffered once for sins the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18). It bothers me when people cite the incarnation as the center of their theology–that God would take on human flesh is indeed an amazing thing, but we must not say that that act is sufficient for our redemption. God’s holiness is so bright and our sin was so heinous that God saw fit to execute his own dear son on a cross, pouring out his wrath on him in our stead. Our theology must not stem merely from the incarnation lest we become imbalanced and overly man-centered in our theology. We must consider the entire life, death, and resurrection of Christ by which our salvation is secured.

  13. Tim,

    You said,

    But I really don’t think I’m canonizing Piper (or Edwards, really). It’s not as if I’m in a dark room, and believe uncritically that everything is where they tell me it is. Instead, they’ve just flipped on the light and now I can see what they see.

    That’s a good point. No person comes to a text or develops a hermeneutic with a tabula rasa as the starting point. We all have presuppositions and apriori influences. It is best, however, that we recognize them for what they are, and be willing to disagree with them if or when the text shows them to be in error. Whatever tradition we come from or theological framework we develop, our approach should be one where Scripture can trump tradition if that tradition holds to beliefs wrongly interpreted or grounded elsewhere than God’s Word.

    This reminds me of what Carson calls “distanciation” in his book Exegetical Fallacies where basically we must be willing to listen and allow interpretations outside our pre-determined convictions to be given due consideration. I am afraid that the temptation to stay under the horizon of our own tradition could not allow us to (at least) understand the perspectives of other believers (as in Witherington). In the end, I have attempted to deal fairly and accurately both my “tradition” (and presuppositions) as well as those who differ/disagree with me.

    With that said, I readily admit that Piper and Schreiner are two men whom God has used to help me understand God’s Word. Like you, their scholarship has confirmed what I have come to see in my own study of Scripture. Yet their work is secondary and supplementary to my task of theological inquiry and exegetical analysis.

  14. Drew,

    As far as iMonk’s apposition of “Christian Humanist,” I cannot speculate, but I would like to mention something in that context. Regarding the Incarnation of Christ, many theologians have emphasized Jesus as the “Spirit anointed Christ” in that the life and ministry of Jesus was performed in the power of the Holy Spirit where his full humanity was on display. As such, the principle text brought up is Phil. 2:5-11 wherein the kenotic theory is seen as key to understanding the Spirit-anointed Christ (see Gerald Hawthorne’s The Presence and the Power). The great benefit derived from emphasizing the Incarnation is that we can relate to Jesus in his humanity, and that Jesus can relate to us. If Christ lived and ministered in the fullness of His deity, then it is argued that we cannot have meaningful relatability to our elder Brother who was made like us. Driscoll is a good example of emphasizing this (as is Dr. Bruce Ware).

    I understand this thinking, but I do find some of it problematic. I would argue that we know God and ourselves in the light of being “in Christ.” This phrase, while it certainly includes the Incarnation, incorporates a panoramic view of the person and work of Christ that entails both the humiliation as well as exaltation of our Savior.

    I do not know if that is anywhere in the ballpark of what the iMonk was referring to, but perhaps it is another corrective proffered to those who would marginalize the Incarnation (full humanity) of Christ in their theology.

  15. Aaron Says:

    Is love for God something people do of themselves or only something that God can work in his people through the Spirit?

    This is something that has radically changed (and still is) the way I understand the character of God and how man relates to Him. That is, if true love consists only in God’s love for Himself, then the only way for a person to have true love is for them to share in the love that God has for Himself. Love is from God and for God. It is then not really man’s response to God but the working of God in the soul. Also, if God is the source of all love, then He must also be the ultimate end of all love or He would be an idolater. So grace is then a sharing or participation in the love God has for Himself (that both originates and terminates in Himself) through the Spirit. Though I don’t understand it very well, I think Jonathan Edwards’ view of this was something along the lines of God the Father having perfect love for God the Son, and vica-versa, and the Spirit being the love the flows between them. There are so many things to consider if one starts down this path (and I can barely wrap my mind around the beginnings of it), but given the discussion in these comments section I wonder if a series of posts on the love of God at some point would be very beneficial!

    Some other things to consider is that I don’t think any of God’s attributes can be understood apart from His love. For example, what is His wrath but the effect of the love for His own Being displayed in His hatred for things contrary to Himself? Or can God’s holiness be understood apart from love? If He is set apart and “completely other,” (as some have put it), then for what purpose is He set apart? And how are we to be holy as He is holy? Could it be that He is set apart to love Himself perfectly as no other being can? Anyway, just some thoughts that were spurred by some of the comments here. I enjoyed the discussion.

  16. Aaron,

    Thanks for sharing. I am thinking about posting some excerpts in the future on this topic. I am glad to see that Piper has responded to Witherington’s charges. The issue of God’s intra-Trnitarian love is one I think deserves more discussion. Regarding “love” in general, I originally did a great deal of study on it when Ergun and Emir Caner posited a thesis for a debate with Tom Ascol and James White on the doctrine of “omnibenevolence.”

    I too have enjoyed the discussion and hope that it continues.

  17. […] Brister:”Witherington Takes on Christian Hedonism” (Nov. […]

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