Review by Graham Parkhouse

Christian Hedonism?
A biblical examination of John Piper’s teaching

by Graham Parkhouse

The term ‘Christian Hedonism’ was first coined by Dr John Piper in his 1986 book Desiring God. Hedonism means the pursuit of pleasure, sensual self-indulgence; not something the Bible encourages in believers. Was it the novelty or the wildness of the times that allowed Piper’s unorthodox ideas to gain such easy acceptance? But I should add that this is Christian hedonism, so it is the pursuit of pleasure in God, sensual self-indulgence in God! Whatever this might feel like is anybody’s guess, but looking at the YouTube videos referenced in the book, Piper-style worship offers the same sensual pleasures experienced by anyone at any pop concert, with loud beat music and strobe lighting, but of course there goes with it an assumption that everybody is enjoying a truly spiritual experience. Emperor’s new clothes?

Dr Williams, author of The New Calvinists, is not one to be easily taken in by any Emperor’s new clothes. He takes Piper to task in a workmanlike fashion. Piper has confessed that his ideas arose from his own deep longing for happiness, something he feared was generally denied the Christian, but he was spurred on by reading Blaise Pascal and C S Lewis who both commended the seeking of happiness. Then he set about finding verses in the Bible that sanctioned this pursuit of happiness. As the author points out, this is such a flawed approach, using the Bible to support one’s own thesis, especially as this can be done so easily by carefully selecting verses, ignoring contexts and twisting meaning. The result was that Piper described Christian Hedonism as ‘not just the permission, but the duty – the obligation – to pursue the maximum enjoyment in God’ (p. 11). The book looks carefully at how Piper tries to justify this thesis, providing the Biblical context where Piper doesn’t, and reveals major errors in his teaching.

Piper is an antinomian. How a Christian behaves, his upright Godly life, are subservient to his enjoyment in God. Piper has said that Christians do not have to keep the Ten Commandments, but he has created his own ‘Commandment’ from Psalm 37.4 ‘Delight yourself in the Lord’, yet the context shows this is not a commandment, but an appropriate response as we witness the goodness and faithfulness of God in times of adversity. How to ‘Delight yourself in the Lord!’ without any context is not clear, and could be no more than an invitation to mystical indulgence, and this seems to be what Piper is encouraging.

Every occurrence in the Bible of ‘blessed’ he wants to change to ‘happy’, and in so doing he is bringing the spiritual down to the carnal, thoughts down to feelings.  He even ‘digs up’ scripture to try to convince us the Bible speaks of a happy God! He changes the Westminster Shorter Catechism from ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever’ to ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever!’ Dr Williams writes that Piper ‘insists that all love, as it is expressed in good deeds, is motivated by the pursuit of pleasure’. This conforms to the Greek word for love, eros, the love that is a selfish yearning desire. However, eros does not appear in the Bible; agape does, and this is the Greek word for a love that gives selflessly. Piper coins a new definition of love, one that combines both agape and eros which he calls ‘holy divine eros’ (p.  31). This is just a sample of Piper’s bizarre ideas examined in this book.

I agree with the book’s conclusion that in Christian Hedonism we have a flawed gospel, a false gospel of Piper’s own making (p. 63) and there is a world of difference between the genuine joy of the true believer, and the contrived happiness offered by Christian Hedonism (p. 67). I can warmly commend this book, sad that 31 years have passed without a murmur of protest from the respected pastors who minister beside him. To the churches who so readily embrace modern worship and false doctrine such as Piper’s we could echo the apostle Paul, and ask ‘O foolish people, who hath bewitched you?’