Biblical Christian Ethics, John Piper, and Gracious Correction

On the train back and forth to work the past week,  I began to read my texts for my spring systematic theology course on Christian Ethics.  The main text (of 11 required texts and two recommended texts) is Biblical Christian Ethics by David C. Jones.   I know of no one who is more respected by the faculty (and among students and former students) than Dr. Jones, particularly for his wisdom, humility, and gracious but direct analysis.

Although I won’t be able to experience these aspects of his character first hand in class, these characteristics were evident in a passage of the book that also made me chuckle because it took on John Piper’s most well-known paraphrase near the height of its influence.

In the second chapter, on the goal of the Christian life, Jones addresses the appropriateness of an appeal to self-interest in the offer of eternal life.  He first clearly defends the obvious appeal of eternal life to our self-interest and distinguishes it from egoism:

The offer of eternal life in Christ frankly appeals to our self-interest, but this does not make Christian ethics egoistic as that term is commonly understood.  The framework–eternal life in Christ--makes all the difference.  The Lord satisfies the desires of those who delight themselves in him (Ps. 37:4), and in those things in which he delights-kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth (Jer. 9:24).  The self that is fulfilled in eternal happiness is not just any self, but the self that hungers and thirsts after righteousness (Matt. 5:6), the self that above all desires God.

He then notes that in the history of Christian theology, self-interest has periodically been excluded as a legitimate aspect of Christian ethics.  Jones buttresses his thesis concerning the role of self-interest with Lewis’s observation, “It would be a bold and silly creature that came before its Creator with the boast ‘I’m no beggar.  I love you disinterestedly.’”

Enough context, now to the chuckle.  Jones then moves on to emphasize that the glorification of God and the enjoyment of God are not entirely independent.  In so doing, he draws upon Piper’s influential restatement of the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (from Piper’s work Desiring God).  Piper’s work was first published in 1986 and achieved significant influence in many parts of the reformed protestant world by 1994, when Jones’s book was written.  Jones demonstrates his capacity for gracious correction by accepting, and then gently correcting Piper’s thesis back to the Shorter Catechism’s original formulation:

To glorify God and to enjoy him are not entirely separate and distinct ends; the saints enjoy God when they glorify him, and God is glorified when they enjoy him. This has led one thoughtful evangelical theologian to suggest that the biblical telos is more accurately stated thus: “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.” This is certainly an important aspect of the truth–Piper’s presentation is rich in biblical exposition of the Christian pursuit of joy–and very much in need of emphasis. Nevertheless, the saints’ glorification of God cannot be reduced to their taking pleasure in him. God is glorified by the holiness as well as the happiness of the redeemed. The coordinating particle (to glorify God and to enjoy him forever) is necessary to represent the inseparable objective and subjective aspects of the biblical telos.

Jones footnotes his penultimate sentence in this passage, noting Piper’s effective use of Jonathan Edwards on our being created to reflect God’s happiness, but keeping in focus “Edwards’s other ‘remanations’ of God’s glory, namely, knowledge and holiness.”

Thus, Jones takes Piper to task graciously and directly while preserving the truth and value of Piper’s chosen emphasis in its cultural context.  In so doing, he gives form and content to the unarticulated “feeling” I have always had about Piper’s reformulation.  Well done, Dr. Jones.  A small example of something that I have heard a LOT about from the lecterns at CTS.

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