Friday, February 29, 2008

The Link Between Augustine and Piper's Thesis in Desiring God

Many of my readers will be quite familiar with John Piper's famous dictum, "The chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying him forever." (1) They also know that this is a spin-off of another famous, Puritan, work; the Westminster Shorter Catechism, "The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever." (2) A seemingly inconsequential difference, just one little conjunction, but enough of a difference to shift theology and write a very weighty book (Desiring God). It must be pointed out that the Puritans of England were direct spiritual descendants of John Calvin (an Augustinian scholar), and indirect descendants of Martin Luther, the former Augustinian monk. Augustine, therefore, played a huge part in the Reformation and the development of the Protestant faith.

John Piper, a Baptist, has been heavily influenced by John Calvin, the Puritans, and Augustine himself. It is no surprise, then, that his theology might be very similar to the North African Bishop's. This short article (this will not be as in-depth as, nor is meant to be a scholarly article)will examine a few important elements of Piper's statements and focus primarily on the word "enjoying," comparing it to Augustine's statements in order to clarify what that word means.

Most people in our culture do not speak of "ends" and barely understand the phrase, 'the end justifies the means.' "End" can be thought of as goal, but this does not do the word justice. Rather it should be thought of as purpose, that which something was designed for. This consideration clarifies the phrase "the chief end of man." The phrase could be restated as the primary purpose for which man was designed.

Next, the word "glorify" should be examined. To glorify something is to bring glory to it, but what is glory? Glory is our English word that is used to translate the New Testament Greek word dóxa (honor, majesty, praise, high reputation, splendor) and the Hebrew word kābōd (honor, splendor, dignity of position). Biblically speaking, then, to glorify means to honor and give right place to one who is far above oneself. This is a foreign concept within our culture, which values the rights of every individual. The term has connotations of monarchy, the honoring of which superseded individual rights (think of Araunah the Jebusite's response to David in 2 Sam. 24:18, ff. as standard for the Ancient Near East).

Skipping ahead slightly, the word forever, while not a foreign concept, should be unpacked. Forever is necessary to the entire concept of the statement. Two functions of this word are readily apparent. First, man as corporate humanity continues to live in successive generations and continues to depend on God. These generations are designed to continue to glorify him. Second, man as individual has been created as an eternal being. As such, humans will continue to glorify God in perfected bodies after death and resurrection on the new earth (or in eternal punishment in the lake of fire). Men are eternal and worship an eternal God.

Finally, the term "enjoy." It is upon this word that most of the confusion lies. In our culture, enjoyment generally means to use something to bring happiness, to take pleasure in something, or to experience happiness over an occurrence. This has little to do with how the term is used in the statement. Augustine, whose categories influenced both statements above, said, "To enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake." (3) Augustine made the distinction that God should be enjoyed (loved) for his own sake because he is the most important thing in existence. Men on the other hand, should also be enjoyed, but not for their own sakes. Rather, because they are made in the image of God, they should be enjoyed (loved) for God's sake. So, because God is most important, and his revelation says that he created man in his image, man should be loved, after God and for God's glorification (not man's).

Another distinction that Augustine made was between enjoyment and use. While God is to be enjoyed for his own sake, and mankind is to be enjoyed for God's sake, what of the rest of creation? Augustine said that the rest of creation is to be used. “[W]e must use this world, not enjoy it, in order to . . . derive eternal and spiritual value from corporeal and temporal things." (4) The created order, then, may be loved in a different capacity, not as ends but as means. They point to God and they do so in a lesser way than humanity.

The idea of use is important as it carries with it the idea of sign. Created things (even humans) all have been made in such a way as to signify something greater. Think of a ring: the ring has no beginning and no end, is made of precious metal, and is therefore traditionally given to signify covenant. Its attributes make it greater than the sum of its parts. The covenant of marriage itself is a sign of something greater. For Christians, marriage points to the covenant between Christ and the Church which is why Christians must not cheat or divorce; it says something about Christ and his Bride.

Created things (but not humans) are to be used intentionally to bring glory to God. If these things take our focus away from God (the sign becomes the thing itself, or replaces the thing it signifies), it constitutes abuse. We see this abuse around us daily. A case may be built that we Christians often abuse God-given blessings. It is easy to see, then, why John Piper might write an article on drinking orange juice to the glory of God. Augustinian thought, obviously, is a God-centered mode of thinking, rather than a man-centered one.

So, if the greatest purpose for which man was designed is to honor God and love him above all else for his own sake forever (clarified Westminster), what is the need for changing the statement? I believe that John Piper sees a form of confusion in the Westminster wording. How do we honor God? What can we do as humans in a created but fallen world to bring glory to our God's reputation? What should we search for as the key to glorification? The answer? Nothing. God has all the glory he needs within himself. He does not need our praise or honor in order to be honored. He is the only being worthy of honor or capable of honoring (rightly). He honors himself.

If this is the case, how can we rightly honor this God being fallen ourselves? We rightly honor him when we see him as the only glorious entity and rightly focus our devotion and love (enjoyment) on him. We only rightly enjoy (á la Augustine) when we enjoy God. Our focus for our lives is shifted away from ourselves, away from our actions, away from magic bullets designed to please God, onto God himself and using everything to enjoy him. The only right way to glorify God is by enjoying him alone. Ah, there's the shift! The chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying him forever.

1) John Piper, Desiring God. Multnomah, OR.: Multnomah Press. 1996. Pg. 15

2) Alexander McPherson, ed. Westminster Confession of Faith. Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications. 2003. Pg. 287

3) Aurelius Augustine, On Christian Teaching. London: Oxford University Press. 1999. Pg. 9

4) Ibid.


Pulse said...

I really enjoyed this post!--as a means to an end, of course.


Steven Douglas said...

Well I hope it was 'useful' to you!