After posting my blog yesterday on our reason for loving God, and the debate that surrounds the concept of Christian hedonism my very bright nephew wrote me a private letter. His letter is so thoughtful and helpful that I share it.

Dear Uncle John:

I can’t say that I have any particular disagreement with anything you said and I certainly learned a lot from it. I can also see how this blog could be provocative, if not divisive, between two groups of believers who both love and walk with God. Shouldn’t we be encouraging each other (Piper and Armstrong) to love and good deeds and encouraging the other to do the ever important work of the kingdom and not get muddled in the details of our differences? "In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I just wonder if this is being charitable.

I so respect my nephew’s insights as a godly man and a very bright Christian physician, who is a well-trained professional in the field of pediatric oncology research, that I answered him this way:

This is a very fair question except for one major reason. I write this kind of blog because people build entire movements and groups around this type of distinctive about why we love God (thus the "debtor’s ethic" which is so important to the entire core argument of Christian hedonism as I understand it). This is what often divides the church into those who get it and those who do not. It is not so much the teacher who does this as those who read and follow the teacher, especially devoted younger Christians who do not know the classical Christian tradition or the great thinkers of the whole Church. I once heard John go very aggressively after Chuck Colson  in a public setting where this issue was the driving point. This approach, which showed courage on his part, also divided the group present deeply. I am not, as you will see if you carefully read my words, attacking John’s godly character but rather holding to the light of Christian tradition this one concept (Christian hedonism), a concept that I have long believed should be questioned in a correct and charitable way. I hope I did this in yesterday’s blog since I do not desire to undermine his great good at all. This type of questioning is proper and good teachers have always done it. The problem is when we use various methods that attack a Christian’s character and motives, or do not tell the whole truth, then these  are other issues entirely. Sadly, the blogosphere invites the second response and feeds it overmuch since there is no community of love to check it and guide it. People can show their worst side in this world of Internet talk.

Regarding any doctrinal matters here ultimately it is we who are leaders in the Church who must say, "I mean this" and "Not this." This is iron sharpening iron. The divisions come when we (the teachers) insist that we must be right and everyone else must be wrong; e.g., epistemic hubris is the cause of that I believe; i.e., we are too certain we have arrived at the truth and nothing but the truth because we over trust our ability to discern the truth and to state it precisely. This is why I affirm the great ecumenical creeds as core truth. They preserve catholicity while they also guide us away from what is less vital to our faith.

My nephew wrote back this response:

Thanks! This is helpful. You know we struggle with the same thing in academic medicine. It is routine and expected for a speaker to have a time of questioning at the end and it is always thoughtful/critical dialogue. You learn to grow tough, realize it is not personal, just academic debate and you move on. I don’t think the general public gets this.

I think my nephew’s insightful conclusion is helpful and this is why I decided to post it for all to read. The danger in what I sometimes write is that the “general public” simply does not “get this” in the way that I put it and meant it. But a faithful writer presses on, trying to be both clearer and genuinely helpful at the same time. My goal is not to attack John Piper, whose work has helped so many to love God more deeply. I did want to question his basic thesis about the motivation of the heart for loving God. Can we at least grow “tough” enough to not take this as an attack on a man but rather as a profitable way for questioning something in the light of other great Christian minds such as that of Bernard of Clairvaux?

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  1. Jim Byrne December 21, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Yes, Dr. Piper has invited the kind of thoughtful response to his IDEAS you give by attacking what he construes as the “debtors ethic.” Here, as elsewhere in his thought, the error seems to be one of reductionism, insisting on a sharp either/or, where the tradition has allowed a measured both/and.
    Yes, the celebrity status bestowed on popular preachers like Dr. Piper (although they don’t seek it) too often places thoughtful interaction with their ideas beyond the possibility of conversation, to the benefit of no one.

  2. dave December 22, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    I’m happily Christianly hedonistic but it can’t hurt to examine things. If wrong I need correcting whether on details or the whole thing. Please discuss away.

  3. Bill Kinnon December 22, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    Thank you for your irenic spirit. Your writings are much appreciated.

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