Christian Hedonism? A Biblical Examination of John Piper’s Teaching

By Chris Hand

This is a ‘must read’ book.

It is comparatively easy to write a book you know will upset nobody. It is more challenging to write a book you know will upset a lot of people.

This book is of the latter kind.

And it needed to be.

It is this reviewer’s firm conviction that examining so-called ‘Christian hedonism’ is a most pressing and urgent issue as this teaching confronts the contemporary church with a potent threat to its spiritual health.

For this reason we are placed very much in the debt of Dr Ted Williams who has supplied us with this thoroughly researched and well written critique of theologian-pastor John Piper’s teaching. Piper’s novel interpretation of the nature of the Christian life and Christian worship as reducible to the pursuit of pleasure has been uncritically taken up and championed by many in the Reformed churches and beyond. These are the people in serious need of upsetting. We must hope this book will have that most necessary and salutary effect.

Piper’s recasting of Christian duty, service and worship as consisting, at heart, of an imperative to pursue a supposedly Christianised version of hedonism has been with us over thirty years. First popularised with the publication of the book ‘Desiring God’ in 1986, the idea has travelled on, helped by the ‘Desiring God’ web-site, Piper’s appearances at conferences such as ‘Passion’ and through later books, authored by Piper, which have further elaborated and defended his position.

Dr Williams charts Piper’s idiosyncratic evolution into a self-styled ‘Christian hedonist’ and subjects his case to the scrutiny of Scripture, finding it seriously wanting in the process. Some of the key texts Piper leans heavily on to support his reformulation, such as Psalm 37:4 and Deuteronomy 28:47-48, are revealed as having been misapplied. Piper’s snappy and undoubtedly novel reframing of the Westminster Shorter Catechism to read ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever’ is found to rest on a serious misunderstanding of the word ‘enjoy’. We are left under no misapprehension that ‘Christian hedonism’ is essentially John Piper’s own personal spiritual odyssey and, as such, is left struggling to find Scriptural support or justification.

Time and time again Piper is found reducing the Christian life to the pursuit of emotions and feelings.

He (Piper) claims that we do good deeds because doing them gives us personal, sensual, felt pleasure. (p35).

Dr Williams has chapter and verse to prove the point. Or elsewhere we learn

…Piper is trying to convince his readers that the climax of true, authentic worship is a feeling, which may last for only seconds, when the worshipper is transported into a mystical place stands above the working of the rational mind. (p39).

Again, Dr Williams is able to supply the evidence to prove his point.

In Greek mythology, Procrustes was the owner of an iron bed who would invite passers-by to stay the night. If his ‘guests’ were too short to fit his bed, he would stretch them out with his smith’s hammer until they did. Or if his ‘guests’ were too tall he would chop off parts of their anatomy until he had achieved a perfect fit. ‘Christian hedonism’ is one such Procrustean bed, forcing Scripture and evidence regarding our human constitution and make-up to fit this preconceived notion.

Incredibly, Piper pursues his logic so relentlessly to the extent that he is even bold enough to re-characterise God Himself as being a hedonist.

Piper paints the picture of a God whose chief attribute is happiness and whose chief end is to enjoy Himself. In other words, Piper’s God is a committed hedonist. (p49).

We are left gasping at just how far Dr Piper will take his Procrustean methodology. But then the Lord Jesus Christ is also painted in these colours. Unbelievable! But Dr Williams has the proof of this ready to hand and Scripture in abundance to offer a more credible and dignified alternative.

Some of the usual suspects are to be found clouding Dr Piper’s judgement, such as antinomianism. So having freed himself from the laws’ demands, Piper is now free to invent his own set of demands and require us all to follow him and be ‘Christian hedonists.’ In other words, ‘Be Happy – or else…’. It is all most unsatisfactory and pastorally downright reckless.

In conclusion, Ted Williams observes that Christian hedonism is,

…a man-made concept based on an antinomian view of Scripture, a false view of God’s love, an ungodly view of worship, a worldly view of happiness, a twisted view of Scripture, and a wrong view of salvation.                                                                      (p68)

That puts it well. There is probably a fair bit more to say about Christian hedonism before the day is done. But Dr Williams in this short but immensely helpful book has given us the key signposts to direct our thinking and reflection.

If you can forgive the irony, I, for one, am not happy with ‘Christian hedonism’. You may not be either after you have read this book.

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