The Associate Presbytery's testimony against Christian Hedonism

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TheOldCourse

Puritan Board Sophomore
As part of the Act, Declaration and Testimony of the Associate Presbytery (1736) after the Secession, some of Professor Simson's errors, as a professor of divinity in Glasgow within the Church of Scotland, are enumerated. I found the following in particular interesting as it addresses a hedonistic interpretation of WSC 1 which has recently prevailed among what could be considered the Young, Reformed, and Restless crowd.

6. Mr Simson likewise affirms and maintains,--That "a regard to our own happiness, and the prospect of our eternal felicity and blessedness in the enjoyment of God in heaven, ought to be our chief motive in serving the Lord upon earth*." He also affirms, upon the answer to the first question of the Catechism,--That "our glorifying God being the means,--is subordinate to our enjoyment of him for ever which is our ultimate end:" and That, "were it not for the prospect of happiness, we could not, and therefore would not serve God."--As Mr Simson perverts the doctrine held forth from the scriptures cited upon the answer to the first question of our Larger and Shorter Catechisms: So as the Committee of the General Assembly 1727 very justly observe (State of the Process p. 277) What is set forth in the above article is contrary to the instinct of that new nature the Lord endueth all his people with in regeneration; which makes them, by the further influence of grace, desire to serve God for himself and his supereminent excellencies and not merely or chiefly for the prospect of their own happiness; whence it is their greatest burden, that they cannot more serve him for himself. And considering how much all men are bound to make the glory of God their chief end, though yet they are called herewith to pursue happiness; and likewise that it is through a prevailing respect to God's honour and glory, and not a mere or chief respect to our own happiness, that the difference between nature and grace is to be cleared to the doubtful Christian. Therefore,--it is no small dishonour to God, to teach what is set down in the above articles and that the contrary was necessary to be taught.
 

Herald

Administrator
Staff member
Probably the most prolific contemporary voice on Christian Hedonism is John Piper. Piper's Desiring God organization defines Christian Hedonism thus:

"Christian Hedonism is the conviction that God’s ultimate goal in the world (his glory) and our deepest desire (to be happy) are one and the same, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Not only is God the supreme source of satisfaction for the human soul, but God himself is glorified by our being satisfied in him. Therefore, our pursuit of joy in him is essential.

Christian Hedonism claims that the Christian life should be the pursuit of maximum joy in God — joy both in quality and quantity. Fullness of joy and joy forevermore (Psalm 16:11) are found only in him."

In what ways is this view faithful to scripture and in what ways is it not?
 

Herald

Administrator
Staff member
Yes. Piper changes the WSC 1 to "Man's chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever"

See also https://www.puritanboard.com/threads/pipers-christian-hedonism.10017/
Stephen,

I am not sure what you are saying "Yes" to. Both the WSC and Keach's Baptist Catechism say the same thing about the chief end of man. I only read Desiring God once but if I recall, Piper was saying that when we enjoy God we are de facto glorifying Him. This makes us ask questions like how do we enjoy God? How do we know the joy of the Lord? Happiness is found in genuine obedience to God. In our entertainment-driven culture happiness is seen through a different lens. When I think of happiness from a Christian perspective I think of contentment, peace, and joy. In this way, I think Piper is right. OTOH, the term Christian Hedonism just does not seem fitting. Hedonism is one of those words that emphasizes sensuality and physical pleasure.
 

TheOldCourse

Puritan Board Sophomore
Stephen,

I am not sure what you are saying "Yes" to. Both the WSC and Keach's Baptist Catechism say the same thing about the chief end of man. I only read Desiring God once but if I recall, Piper was saying that when we enjoy God we are de facto glorifying Him. This makes us ask questions like how do we enjoy God? How do we know the joy of the Lord? Happiness is found in genuine obedience to God. In our entertainment-driven culture happiness is seen through a different lens. When I think of happiness from a Christian perspective I think of contentment, peace, and joy. In this way, I think Piper is right. OTOH, the term Christian Hedonism just does not seem fitting. Hedonism is one of those words that emphasizes sensuality and physical pleasure.

It's a matter of priority that Piper and Simson err in. For Simson, and the way I read Piper as well, glorifying God is a means to the end of our own happiness. Piper does tend to speak more in terms of identity between the two rather than means to an end, but the focus always seems to fall on the human enjoyment side of the equation. To be sure this is not a carnal happiness, but the distance in priority between God's glory and our happiness is the same as the distance between Creator and creature. Even were we to be made miserable in pursuit of God's glory, we would nevertheless be constrained to do so. That God has made us so as to joy in his glory is a great gift and condescension on His part, but His glory is still the greater thing. To return to the Secession Church's response: "And considering how much all men are bound to make the glory of God their chief end, though yet they are called herewith to pursue happiness; and likewise that it is through a prevailing respect to God's honour and glory, and not a mere or chief respect to our own happiness, that the difference between nature and grace is to be cleared to the doubtful Christian."
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Hedonism of any sort needs a calculus to measure the happiness. Historically, this meant x number of "hedons" for each act. It's not clear how this works in Piper's scheme. It doesn't mean enjoying God is wrong; only that Piper is confusing several philosophical categories. Paul Helm gives a fine analysis of the problem:

First, Piper:

Thinking rightly and deeply about the Word and the world with a view to seeing the greatness of God and his works (especially the work of Christ) so that the affections of our hearts might rest on a true foundation and God might be honored by how we feel toward him and by the behaviours that flow from this heart. (52)

Helm:

[Gaping hole? Think for a moment about what Dr Piper says above about hypocrisy and then about what Paul and Jesus say. Paul: while you preach against stealing, do you steal? And Jesus: Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self indulgence’. Always, hypocrisy denotes a failure of the will, and ne’r a word about feelings in our hearts.]

It is this almost exclusive stress on felt feelings, on self-awareness, the need to register and to check our emotional level, that enables Piper’s hedonistic calculus to operate. Checking themselves out with the calculus enables his followers to estimate whether what they feel shows whether they have some satisfaction with Christ, are more satisfied, or are most satisfied in Christ.

http://paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.com/2011/07/baring-our-souls-john-piper-christian.html
 

TheInquirer

Puritan Board Freshman
As has been pointed out, Piper's big problem is making the experience of joy the ultimate "ethic" or "duty" of the Christian life. The Bible doesn't do that. If there is an ultimate ethic connected to glorifying God, it is loving God. There is a reason Jesus affirms Deut. 6:4-5 as the summary of the moral law and not some other command.

““Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” - Matthew 22:36–38

Piper tries to get around this by defining love in terms of joy in Desiring God:

“Love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others.” (Desiring God, p119; 2011)

Unfortunately, I think Piper has the dependencies between love and joy exactly backwards. Nobody that I researched in the Christian tradition defines love this way, not even Jonathan Edwards.

Here is a quote from my Master's Thesis on the topic:

"Jonathan Edwards describes love in terms of “that liking or inclination of the soul to a thing” and “the chief of the affections and fountain of all other affections.” Interestingly, Edwards thinks that love is an inclination and joy is the feeling of “pleasedness” when the desire of the soul is present, thus implying that joy follows love, the chief affection from which all others flow.[1] Piper, who is so admittedly influenced by Edwards, strangely does not follow his lead here and says that joy is the primary affection from which love flows." [1] Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 25-26.


The way several Reformed authors define love is an impelling force that drives us toward an object of affection. Joy is the result of attaining the object of that desire (which is how Augustine defines it as well).

In contrast, I think Augustine has a much better eudaimonistic system that focuses on loving God as the primary ethic and saves the fullness of the experience of joy and happiness in God for the life to come. Augustine is more of a realist of how much happiness we can experience in this life due to the present fallen condition since we do not "possess" God (a term easily misunderstood but I think should be thought of in a relational sense/how much we experience the fullness of God) in the same way we will in eternity.

I think Piper's system sets Christians up for failure and discouragement. If all he did was attempt to point out the importance of joy in the Christian life and how it is often neglected, and not make it the ultimate pursuit, I think he would be on much stronger ground.

To be fair, understanding the relationship between love and joy and happiness is fairly tricky. Definitions are harder to come by than what I initially expected in my research. There is a tight relationship between these affections and it is incredibly profound and it does indeed all center on God, the Supreme Good. But we've got to get the priorities right and focus on how the Bible leads us in these relationships. The glory of God is the ultimate target. Love centers and pushes us to that target. Joy is the outcome.

Unfortunately, and you may have noticed this, Piper cherry picks verses very badly and as a result, I do not believe his method or his conclusions are sound. Although I think Piper, from what I can tell, is a guy who is sincere and has done much for the kingdom and glory of God, I cannot recommend Christian hedonism for these reasons.

Added: I think the solution to everyone's suspicion that pleasure-seeking sounds ultimately selfish (or at least potentially so) is to once again put the focus back on loving God first and foremost. Once the glory of God is the target and loving God the primary/essential means (as the center of the entire moral law), joy and pleasure in God take their proper subordinate position and keep one from abusing eudaimonism.
 
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Stephen L Smith

Administrator
Staff member
I am not sure what you are saying "Yes" to. Both the WSC and Keach's Baptist Catechism say the same thing about the chief end of man
I cannot speak for Keach's Catechism, but the WSC has "Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever." Piper changes this to Man’s chief end is to glorify God, by enjoying him for ever." See the difference?

I think other posts on this forum have articulated the issue well. Yes I also have concerns about the term Christian hedonism.

By the way, I especially love the wording in the WLC
"Q. 1. What is the chief and highest end of man?
A. Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him for ever."
 

Von

Puritan Board Sophomore
One of the reasons he gives for recasting Christian joy is as follows: "Most of us are virtually impervious to the radical implications of familiar language." (Desiring God, Appx 4)
The shock-value of the language (he believes) will force the idea into people's minds. I think he has reached a lot of people with this kind of language, but it's like going with a battering ram through someone's door. You've got his attention, but at what cost?
 

TheInquirer

Puritan Board Freshman
Just came across this in the first chapter of Ames' Marrow of Theology:

"Although it is within the compass of this life to live both happily and well, ευζωια, living well, is more excellent than ευδαιμονια, living happily. What chiefly and finally ought to be striven from is not happiness which has to do with our own pleasure, but goodness which looks to God's glory. For this reason, theology is better defined as that good life whereby we live to God than as that happy life whereby we live to ourselves." (p.78. Baker Books, Labyrinth Press Edition, 1983.)

Of course Piper tries to unite our happiness and living for God's glory but Ames clearly does not believe our own happiness is the appropriate "target" that we should be aiming at.
 

alexandermsmith

Puritan Board Junior
From what I recall of Charity and Its Fruits Edwards promoted a stable emotional state in the believer: that the believer should seek to control his emotions and not to be moved to extremes of passions one way or the other despite what Providence may bring his way. That of course does not exclude deep and heartfelt joy or love but it would seem to exclude "hedonism" which is certainly not stable.
 

Chad Hutson

Puritan Board Freshman
I appreciate the sentiments that Piper wishes to convey, however I dislike the term "hedonism." For me it paints a negative picture, not a positive. It may very well be due to my own failings, but I wish we wouldn't use terms that often are used to describe sinful lifestyles when we are referring to our relationship to/with God. Similarly, I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit in evangelism to convert sinners as in the day of Pentecost, but I don't use the term "Pentecostal" to describe my doctrinal views. Certain words carry specific connotations and we should be mindful of how people perceive them. That's my opinion, anyway.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
appreciate the sentiments that Piper wishes to convey, however I dislike the term "hedonism." For me it paints a negative picture, not a positive. It may very well be due to my own failings, but I wish we wouldn't use terms that often are used to describe sinful lifestyles when we are referring to our relationship to/with God. Similarly, I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit in evangelism to convert sinners as in the day of Pentecost, but I don't use the term "Pentecostal" to describe my doctrinal views. Certain words carry specific connotations, and we should be mindful of how people perceive them. That's my opinion, anyway

I certainly agree with the tenor of what you are saying, and believe that Christian should be cautious in the words they choose to describe themselves or the church. I also think we should not underestimate the intelligence of the average Christian reader. For I knew what Piper was trying to say the moment I first heard the phrase, "Christian hedonism." I think he used the term mainly to grab your attention in the hopes of getting you to rethink some of the goals you have for Life as a Christian here and hereafter. I'm thinking of three terms from the New Testament alone that had negative connotations that were picked up by the church and redefined into something positive. The words Ecclesia, the Way, and even the term Christian all began with negative connotations, which were appropriated and redefined by the Christian community. I also agree that Piper is a bit lopsided here and there by stressing joy as the primary goal with its result of giving glory to God. But I think overall he may be a needed correction in a time where there is so much joyless Christianity.
Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. Psalms 16:11
All things considered, I think the Piper has been a net good for a sometimes dull and bored Reformed Christianity that has at least partially forgotten that the joy of the Lord is our strength. Over the years I have often heard from some Reformed how important it is to keep a proper whole 24-hour Lord's Day each week, but I seldom heard about how absolutely joyful and wonderful that Day can be. Piper would probably start with Isaiah 58 and then add Jesus' words that the Sabbath was made for man. God usually adds to his laws a human self-interested motivation for keeping them. Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart. Bring your full tithe into the storehouse and see if I don't open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing. Doesn't Jesus appeal to each person's self-interest when he says to Love thy neighbor as thyself? So why not let us learn from Piper then add the biblical correction needed to our Doctrine and practice?

If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord , honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord ; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
Isaiah 58:13‭-‬14 KJV

Please pardon any typos for I dictated this into my tablet.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
The problem with the term "hedonism" is that it is from utilitarianism, and so has all the difficulties with that system. If you say a system is hedonistic, then you have to have a calculus to determine the value of each act. Like, how many "hedons" is an emotional bible study worth compared to an emotional prayer time.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
John Piper takes the concept too far in the direction of glorifying God by the enjoyment we get from him, but it is worth noting that you can go too far in the opposite direction. In New England Theology, some (I'm looking at you Nathanael Hopkins) taught that true love for God was disinterested benevolence - not connected at all from any benefits we get from him. In other words, the chief end of man is to glorify God, whether or not we enjoy him forever. The logical conclusion of this is that Christians ought to be willing to be damned for the glory of God. One presbytery reputedly asked candidates for the ministry whether they were willing to be damned for the glory of God, to which I've always felt the appropriate response may be that of the candidate who said he would be quite happy to see the entire presbytery damned for the glory of God! (The story may be apocryphal - it's on the internet and in a number of books, but I've never seen a clear historical attribution. Let me know if you find one).

Both extremes claim to descend from Edwards, which highlights the complexity of the questions (and of Edwards as a theological and philosophical thinker). But if "To know Christ is to know his benefits" (Calvin), I think there is a middle ground in which the elect are only asked to glorify and love the God who has loved them first. Yes, he would be worthy of glory even if he had never loved us. But he has loved us in Christ, and we don't have to do psychological gymnastics to try to "purify" our love and imagine what we would feel about God if we weren't elect.
 

J.L. Allen

Puritan Board Sophomore
Yes, he would be worthy of glory even if he had never loved us. But he has loved us in Christ, and we don't have to do psychological gymnastics to try to "purify" our love and imagine what we would feel about God if we weren't elect.
This is good. It seems to me there is a childlike simplicity in basking in the displayed attributes of God that we receive.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
And getting an emotional high is subjective. For some people, reading a Puritan quote on having a good quiet time will give them a pious buzz. For me, reading logical analyses on ancient philosophy gives me a pious buzz. We are now thrown back upon the utilitarian calculus: if hedonism of any sort (Edwardsean, etc) is valid, then it must be measured by hedons. So how do we know how many hedons each act is worth? I'm not being funny. This is a legitimate problem in utilitarianism and this Achilles heel is always brought up.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
And getting an emotional high is subjective.

Just a few thoughts:

I just read through Richard Sibbes, A Fountain Sealed, where his entire treatise seems to be partly on what we call emotion. You say that "getting an emotional high is subjective," which brings some questions to my mind:
  1. Are our emotions, feelings, stirrings, or whatever you call them somehow more fallen than our intelect?
  2. Are our deliberate, logical intelectual endevers less affected by the fall than our feelings? Can you prove it?
  3. Have you never experienced your emotions calling foul when faced with some unseemly matter before your intelect kicks in?
  4. Was Jesus' joy that was set before Him that enabled Him to endure the cross a subjective "pious buzz?" BTW - You and I were the objects of that joy.
  5. What do you make of verses like 1 Peter 1:8 which speaking of God says, "Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Is "rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory" a subjective emotional high?
Keep in mind that earlier I said that I think Piper's view is a bit lopsided at times. And I am not in love with his term: Christian Hedonism. But I think I understand what he was trying to say. We are not to seek joy. We are to seek always the glory of God first. But God rewards us with joy in His presence and pleasure forever more.

Sibbes treatise on the Sealing of the Spirit deals deeply with the degree of the hearts response the work of God the Holy Spitit upon mind and soul. At times he almost sounds like he is talking of a "second blessing," but he stops short of that. Then Sibbes deals with some doubts about how you can know if these soul stirring experiences are from the Spirit, or due to "enthusiasm." Here's the first part of it:
=======
Quest. But how shall we know this witness from an enthusiastical fancy and illusion?

Ans. This witness of the Spirit is known from the strong conviction it bringeth with it, which weigheth and overpowers the soul to give credit unto it. But there be, you will say, strong illusions. True. Bring them therefore to some rules of discerning. Bring all your joy, and peace, and confidence to the word. They go both together. As a pair of indentures, one answers another. In Christ’s transfiguration upon the mount, Moses and Elias appeared together with Christ. In whatsoever transfiguration and ravishment we cannot find Moses and Elias and Christ to meet—that is, if what we find in us be not agreeable to the Scriptures—we may well suspect it as an illusion.
That you may know the voice of the Spirit of God from the carnal confidence of our own spirits, inquire,
1. What went before.
2. What accompanieth it.
3. What followeth after this ravishing joy.
1. The word must go before it, in being assented unto by faith, and submitted unto by answerable obedience: ‘In whom, after you believed’ the word of promise, ‘you were sealed.’ So that if there be not,
(1.) First, A believing of the word of promise, there is no sealing: ‘The God of peace give you joy in believing,’ 1 Thes. 5:23. There must be a believing, a ‘walking according to rule,’ Gal. 6:16, or else no joy nor peace will be unto us. If we cannot bring the word and our hearts together, it is not God’s, but Satan’s sealing, a groundless presumption, and it will end in despair. As Christ came by water and blood, so doth this testimony; it cometh after the other two. First, the heart is carried to blood, and from thence hath quiet; then followeth water, and our nature is washed and changed; and then cometh this of the Spirit. Though it be not grounded on their testimony, but is above theirs, yet they go before. Where we thus find the work, we may know it to be right by the order of it.
(2.) It cometh after deep humiliation and abasement. Though we know ourselves to be the children of God in some such measure, as we would not change our condition for all the world, yet we would have more evidence; we would have further manifestation of God’s countenance towards us; we are not satisfied, but wait. After we have long fasted, and our hearts melted and softened, then God poureth water upon the dry wilderness, and then it comes to pass, through his goodness and mercy, that he comforts and satisfies the desires of the hungry soul. God will not suffer the spirit of his children to fail.

Here's a link to download a PDF of Sibbes A Fountain Sealed. (the file was over the 2meg upload limit of the PB) https://bit.ly/2RsKcGw

Sibbes, R. (1863). The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes. (A. B. Grosart, Ed.) (Vol. 5, p. 441). Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson.
 
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BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Subjective doesn't mean bad or sinful. It just means that the object of knowing/feeling passes through the subject (i.e., the individual). My point is that you can't place emotions on some sort of utilitarian calculus, which is precisely what Piper needs to do.
Was Jesus' joy that was set before Him that enabled Him to endure the cross a subjective "pious buzz?" BTW - You and I were the objects of that joy.

It was pious (by definition). Don't know if it was a buzz. And yes, it had a subjective element, since it involved a subject, namely Jesus. Things can be both subjective and objective in different senses.
Is "rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory" a subjective emotional high?

No. Or, it can be for some. My point was that on my system I don't need some unworkable utilitarian calculus to measure that high.

Are our emotions, feelings, stirrings, or whatever you call them somehow more fallen than our intelect?

No.

Are our deliberate, logical intelectual endevers less affected by the fall than our feelings?

No.

Have you never experienced your emotions calling foul when faced with some unseemly matter before your intelect kicks in?

Of course. That's the one thing Heidegger was correct on.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Keep in mind that earlier I said that I think Piper's view is a bit lopsided at times. And I am not in love with his term: Christian Hedonism

But to the degree that he uses the term hedonism, his system is completely wrong. He needs a utilitarian calculus to make it work. If he can't provide that (and he cannot), then he needs to abandon calling it Christian hedonism.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
I am not saying emotional experiences are bad. I am just saying that you can't prove how one is "more deeply felt" than the other, and Piper's language, if he doesn't actually say that, leads to that conclusion.
 
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