Piper and Love
Dr. John Piper’s ministry (desiringgod.org) recently re-published a sermon entitled “The God Who Commands Our Emotions,” which defends Dr. Piper’s theology of moral psychology. Having previously critiqued Dr. Piper’s beliefs on this site, I thought it would be appropriate to engage with the argumentative development found in this sermon. I will note what Dr. Piper contributes to the conversation in the sermon, and afterwards provide my initial reactions.
- Affections Are Emotive
Dr. Piper’s teaching raises several questions, one of which is whether affections can be equated to feelings. Several people who accept Piper’s teaching pushed back on my earlier argument, claiming that the two are separate concepts. It seems that Dr. Piper does not draw that distinction. Rather, he states that “the New Testament commands the emotions,” making it clear that he is speaking of an “affectional emotional dimension of love.”
This is the most linguistically sound use of the term “affections.” Merriam-Webster defines “affection” as “a feeling of liking and caring for someone or something,” which seems to accurately reflect the vernacular use of the word. Therefore, I reject the counter-argument that affections are not synonymous with emotions; neither Dr. Piper nor the English language show any sympathy for that claim. According to Piper, God commands that we display the emotion of love.
- Obedience Is Not Part of Love
Therefore, obedience and love “are not the same.” Dr. Piper cites John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” According to his argument, in an “if-then” sentence, the “if” precedes the “then,” the “then” is merely a result of the “if.” The choice to obey is not the key moral event, therefore; it is merely the result of emotional love.
- We Do Not Control Our Emotions, God Does
Part of my earlier critique rested on the assumption that God would not command us to do something outside of our control. Dr. Piper grants that emotional obedience is impossible: “yes,” he writes, “it is beyond your control.” However, Dr. Piper teaches that the grace of God alters the Christian’s affections, not only enabling but insuring that a believer will be in obedience to God’s directive.
This seems to be the most consistent Calvinist response. After all, conversion is also commanded in the Bible, but is utterly impossible without the irresistible forces of grace. Therefore, it seems that Dr. Piper is merely following standard Calvinist exegesis in making love an impossible command only fulfilled by compulsive grace.
As before, I would like to affirm the good that I see in Dr. Piper’s teaching. Therefore, I will start with our common ground:
- God Wants Us to Feel Emotions
As Dr. Piper documents in numerous verses, God often calls us to feel loving, joyful, and grateful emotions in the Bible. The emotions of Christians are deeply important to God, and at the end of time, we know that He “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4). I think that Catholics and Protestants can accept this doctrine as biblical.
Nevertheless, until that time comes, there will be moments when the emotional aspect of love, gratitude, or joy will feel far away. While God desires rightly ordered moral psychology, He is not making a moral command when He asks us to feel affection. We ought to pray for emotions that correspond to our spiritual reality. We should habituate ourselves so that we may have affection more easily. We ought to dwell on things conducive to rightly ordered feelings. We must always practice obedience with sincerity, drawing upon a desire to desire rightly, even if we cannot desire rightly. Each of these are moral obligations to tend to our emotional lives. However, when God asks us to feel affection, we do not sin if we cannot feel anything. His requests for emotion come out of a desire for us to feel what we were meant to, not out of a desire to make our hearts the decisive moral agent instead of our wills, as I discussed previously.
- God Restores Our Emotions to Their Right Order
At times, God will use His supernatural grace to change our emotions. However, this is not always the way in which grace will manifest. Sometimes, grace manifests in begging God to take a cup of suffering away, but concluding, “Thy will be done.” In such cases, obedience is a constituent part of love.
Dr. Piper’s exegesis of John 14:15 is based on false linguistic assumptions. Sometimes, “if-then” sentences are about the preceding cause and the resulting effect, as Dr. Piper notes. However, this is not the only form of “if-then” sentence. For example, I might say “if your argument is solid, then it will have premises and a conclusion.” In that sentence, the “then” is not an after-effect of the “if,” but a constituent part of the “if.” Similarly, I think there is good reason to believe that obedience is a part of love, rather than merely a result.
- A Slight Inconsistency In Irresistible Grace
While Dr. Piper’s claim that emotions are a result of God’s grace is generally consistent with his Calvinist paradigm, it contains some contradictory elements. While Calvinists generally claim that moral actions are outside of man’s control, their focus has traditionally been on actionable items: belief, repentance, and obedience. Dr. Piper shifts the discussion to parts of man that are not resultant from or controlled by any action: feelings of love, joy, and gratitude. Thus, while grace has previously enabled action from the Calvinist perspective, Dr. Piper has made actions entirely subsequent to and dependent on feeling.
This is problematic because Calvinists have long been wary of making action impossible from the perspective of the actor, for obvious reasons. After all, if obedience is not actionable from the perspective of the actor, then the actor will literally wait for God to compel him to obey. Most Calvinists dismiss this kind of thinking as a straw-man of Calvinism, since there would be no point in an actor doing anything if this type of radical determinism were true. Instead, Calvinists have restricted predestination to a more “sky-high” view of the world, while individuals still bear responsibility for obedience from their perspective.
However, under Dr. Piper’s view, people are from their own perspective unable to act in a way that is pleasing to God. The individual in whom God does not light the flame of emotion, then, is left feeling totally impotent to serve God according to Dr. Piper’s argument. He must merely wait, or else give up in frustration. This seems like a pastorally and theologically problematic doctrine.
Photograph by Hazma Butt. Original found here.