Pushing Back on Piper’s Doctrine of Love
Despite our considerable theological differences, I respect John Piper. Years before Catholicism was anything but a strange, half-pagan concept in my mind, I attended his church in Minneapolis. I was catechized and baptized there, and learned many truths from his preaching that I have never found a substantial reason to doubt, despite subjecting them to much greater scrutiny in later years. Even now, I find much to admire in his life and teaching.
However, an article from him that recently made the rounds on social media gave me a bit of pause. You can read his whole argument here. Since several of my friends shared the article, since I respect Dr. Piper, and since this topic is very important to me, I thought that I would write a response that affirms the truths that I see expressed in the post, while detailing what parts could be understood in a problematic way.
First, I’ll explain what I agree with:
- Dr. Piper rightfully emphasizes the centrality of grace in Christian love.
Dr. Piper affirms that no good can come about, either in the will or in the affections, without the supernatural grace of God. He writes that “both at the level of desiring to do good, and the level of willing the good we don’t desire, we are totally dependent on the decisive grace of God. All that honors Christ — both affections and choices — are gifts to fallen sinners (1 Corinthians 4:7; Galatians 5:22).” This is totally in line with Catholic doctrine, outlined in the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that without the predisposing inspiration of the Holy Ghost and without His help, man can believe, hope, love or be repentant as he ought […] let him be anathema” (Session VI, Canon 3). Without the grace of God, imparted through the Holy Spirit, a right ordering of the will or of the affections is impossible.
- Dr. Piper acknowledges that affections and decisions were made to align in love.
Dr. Piper concisely says that “If our love is only a choice, it is not yet what it ought to be.” This is an important doctrine that concerns the divine order, which God is restoring in the hearts of Christians. The proper role of our affections is to lead us to loving choices, and at the end of time, our affections will accompany and spur our decisions, as they are meant to. As he records in a barrage of Scripture, God’s love for us is affectionate as well as willing, and our love for Him and others is meant to be both affectionate and willing.
However, I think that Dr. Piper takes a wrong turn—or at least, might be misunderstood—in several places:
- Dr. Piper makes the affections the decisive moral agent, rather than the will.
I find it difficult to interpret Dr. Piper except by concluding that he believes that the heart, rather than the will, is the moral agent of the human person. He writes that “saying “love is a choice” sounds like the tendency to make the will — with its decisions — the decisive moral agent rather than the heart, with its affections.” This seems to teach that affections, rather than decisions, are what have ultimate moral weight.
This seems false and dangerous. If our choices—which are, by definition, what humanity can control—are not how we operate in the moral realm, then our moral existence (whether we are good or evil) is not determined by us in any meaningful sense. If this is true, then there can be no culpability (which requires that our condition be our fault). Our affections are not the same as our choices, which Dr. Piper rightly notes. If so, then they are not (at least inherently) our fault. Affections may occur regardless of what we choose, and thus our morality would be determined by something outside of our will: our feelings and desires.
A few people might be tempted to equate affections and choices here, albeit in a half-conscious way. At times, I think that Dr. Piper’s followers (and Protestants more generally) overemphasize the degree to which emotions can be summoned up. If this were consistently possible, then we could categorize affections within the power of the will. Dr. Piper pushes back on this theory, rightly noting that affections are not within our control and pointing to grace as the sole power which can rightly order our affections. This is a first step in the right direction.
However, it must be further noted that God does not always elect to make our temporal affections match the divine order. This is true even in cases where we ask God for affections that match His will, and even when we do so sincerely and in faith. Indeed, the reality is that we are incapable of summoning loving feelings; even some of the most impeccable saints have confessed that their feelings can be unhinged from their right ordering. The phantoms of our emotions, now known by science to be at least partially dictated by certain chemical distributions, are not ours to corral.
Consider the general pattern of man’s emotions: at times we are blessed by an abundance of affection. Often conversions result in this overflow of feeling. However, as we mature spiritually, we often we experience what St. John of the Cross termed the “dark night of the soul”- a time when warm feelings are utterly absent. God uses these times as well, to ensure that we do not walk by our own passions but through obedience. He does not guarantee that He will always make our passions align with His commands. Rather, we must learn to master our passions and choose His will even when our passions rebel.
So neither God nor we will always make our passions align with God’s will in this life. This does not necessarily occur because of any lack of faith or sin, but merely because of the reality of the Christian life and the plan of God. Therefore, Dr. Piper’s teaching divorces our standing before God not only from anything that we can control, but also from anything that He consistently gives through grace to those who are in Christ.
Therefore, struggling Christians whose affections still wander from their proper ordering might be led to conclude that God has denied them any way to truly express love. Nothing could be further from the truth: God has given them the opportunity to master their passions and express love despite their feelings, through their choices. These believers do not have all the feelings of love, but they have the essential component of love: choice.
God does not ask the impossible of such believers. He has guaranteed that we should be able to withstand every temptation, not only faults of commission (like theft or lust), but also omission (including the omission of love). He would not base the call to Christian charity on something as outside of our command (or rather, outside of the grace He always offers and that our soul may accept as a gift) as our emotions.
Dr. Piper writes that “Saying “love is a choice” sounds like the tendency to believe love is in our power to perform, even when we don’t feel like it.” But that is exactly what we must believe: Christians have been granted the grace to choose against our emotional inclinations, to overcome our anger or fear or lack of love and nevertheless choose to love. God has granted us the power to love, even when we do not feel like it.
He also writes that “Saying ‘love is a choice’ sounds like the tendency to set the bar too low: If you can will to treat someone well, you have done all you should.” This teaching does not set the bar too low—rather, it distinguishes what is morally required of us and what we cannot control. Of course, it is preferable to have overflowing affection for every person that we encounter, and to love them with our affections rather than with our choices. However, we must be reminded that love is rooted in something less transient than such exuberance.
For an example, we must turn to our Lord, who exhibited the opposite tendency: He was often stern and grave and rarely gushed with fondness, even over those closest to Him. By all accounts, this paragon of love did not usually act like a man overcome by feelings of love. His charity was rooted in something deeper.
In sum, God has not placed love outside of our will; love in an act of the will. If this were not true, then our responsibility to love would be erased, and love itself would be impossible to truly realize without the grace of loving feelings, which God does not give to all who sincerely seek them. However, since we know that love is a virtue which every Christian has been given access to, it must be rooted in the will, and not in the affections.
- Dr. Piper claims that affections determine choices.
Dr. Piper seems to say that the will is merely a conduit for decisions which are determined by our feelings. He writes that, “Beneath the will, with its decisions, there is the heart, which produces our preferences, and these preferences guide the will.” I cannot accept this doctrine for the reasons I already alluded to in the first point: it would make our moral state totally dependent on factors outside of our control. As I also mentioned, I believe that God’s grace in Christ allows us to fight against our feelings. Dr. Piper seems to believe instead that God merely changes our feelings so that our decisions might change.
This thesis is experientially false in the case of many believers throughout time, as I have already noted. It is also not compatible with the opening lines of Dr. Piper’s own essay: “It is true that if you don’t feel like doing good to your neighbor, love will incline you to “choose” to do it anyway. If you feel like getting a divorce, love will incline you to “choose” to stay married and work it out.” I do not see how Dr. Piper can reconcile these two beliefs.
Instead, we must acknowledge that the will can act independently of the feelings of an individual. Of course, it is possible that someone can act according to her feelings: if someone is angry, she can attack the person whom she is angry at. However, it is also possible for someone to act contrary to her feelings, and to restrain her anger.
In fact, it is often the case that our choices gradually shape our feelings, rather than the other way around. As a prophet of a recent age reminded us, feelings generally follow rather than precede charity: “When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” The ancients knew this as well; as Aristotle observed long ago, our affections are set in right order by our habits, not the other way around. Affection can be an effect, not merely a cause. In this way, the virtue of Christian charity is built, piece by piece, over time.
I hope that I have misunderstood Dr. Piper. Like him, I am jealous of the Christian virtue of charity, and I hope that its truth will be shown through this dialogue.
Photo credit to Justin Daffke. Original can be found here.