God Magnifying God: A contemporary debate

tsslogo.jpgThe motive of God, as displayed in Scripture, is central to Reformed theology (i.e. Calvinism). God acts for the sake of His own glory. Does this make God a narcissist?

Much of what is written on blogs sinks quietly into the electronic void (sometimes that’s a good thing). I think it’s worth our time to pause here to listen carefully to this contemporary debate.

It all started last Monday.

Ben Witherington initiates (11.20.07)

The recent discussion was ignited by Bible scholar Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Asbury Theological Seminary. Witherington was reading Schriener’s new book (New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ) and came across Schriener’s thesis: “God magnifying himself through Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit.”

Witherington took offense and wrote a critical blog post on Nov. 20th (“For God so loved Himself?” Is God a Narcissist?). In part he writes,

“There were various nuances and amplifications to the discussion, but the more one read, the more it appeared clear that God was being presented as a self-centered, self-referential being, whose basic motivation for what he does, including his motivation for saving people, is so that he might receive more glory. Even the sending of the Son and the work of the Spirit is said to be but a means to an end of God’s self-adulation and praise.”

Witherington defended his view of God as one who acts out of self-sacrifice for the good of others. God’s glory stems from His selflessness and sacrifice not his self-centeredness.

And Witherington ended his critique with a left hook.

“I suppose we should not be surprised that in a culture and age of narcissism, we would recreate God in our own self-centered image, but it is surprising when we find orthodox Christians, and even careful scholars doing this.”

Ouch.

With this one post, Witherington challenged centuries of Reformed theology and especially Jonathan Edwards. But his rifle also took dead aim at contemporary ministries of men like John Piper and Sam Storms.

Especially given Witherington’s scant exegetical basis for his arguments there were responses to be expected. And it didn’t take long for them to begin.

Denny Burk responds (11.21.07)

Denny Burk, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas, was the first to respond. His response was centered around two main points.

1. Scripture does not present God’s “love” as an end in itself. God’s love and redemption shown towards sinners is frequently used to show that God acts in these things for His own glory (Exodus 9:16; 2 Samuel 7:26; Psalm 79:9; Isaiah 42:8; 48:9; Ezekiel 36:22, 32; John 17:5; Romans 9:17; 11:36; Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14).

“God’s love (manifested supremely in Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners) is a means by which His glory is manifested to the world. This is the common Arminian error. They mistakenly regard God’s means (His love and redemptive acts) as ends in themselves. But the Bible simply does not bear this out. The ultimate end or purpose of everything is God’s glory.”

2. Calvinists do not call God “narcissistic” (an “inordinate fascination with oneself”). After citing Isaiah 42:8, Burk writes,

“When sinful humans exalt themselves, it is not loving because it is a distraction from the One who truly can meet the deepest needs of fallen humanity. It is a vice for sinful people to call others to admire them and so to distract them from admiring God. God is love. Therefore He must exalt Himself so as to draw people into worship. This is not narcissistic because it is no vice for Him to exalt the beauty of His own perfections for His creatures’ enjoyment and blessing. Witherington misses all of this, and like other Arminians, removes the firmest grounding that we have for God’s love — God’s own desire to exalt the glory of His own perfections.”

In other words, God acts in love towards sinner because He is motivated for His own glory. God magnifying His own glory is the foundation for the love given to me as a sinner.

Bottom line, Burk calls Witherington out on the simple fact that God’s love towards sinners in redemption is not at odds against God acting for His own glory. Sinners like myself enjoy God forever because God is most concerned about His eternal glory.

John Piper responds (11.24.07)

It was only a matter of time before Piper responded. Piper is John Piper is the Pastor for Preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota and featured at desiringGod.org. Glorious and profound truths (like the motives of God!) are his lifelong study.

And his thoughts on Witherington’s critique? “Astonishing.”

As expected, Piper’s response was exegetical. Piper posted a list of passages under the title “Biblical Texts to Show God’s Zeal for His Own Glory.” These passages include Exodus 14:4; 1 Samuel 12:20-22; 2 Samuel 7:23; 2 Kings 19:34; Isaiah 43:6-7, 25; 48:9-11; 49:3; Jeremiah 13:11; Ezekiel 20:14; 36:22-23; Psalms 25:11; 106:7-8; Habakkuk 2:14; Matthew 5:16; John 5:44; 7:18; 12:27-28; 14:13; 16:14; 17:1, 24; Acts 12:23; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Romans 1:22-23; 3:23-26; 9:22-23, 17; 11:36; 15:7; Ephesians 1:4-6; Philippians 1:9,11; 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10; 1 Peter 2:12; 4:11; Revelation 21:23.

In succinct bullet points, Piper adds the following.

“God’s exaltation of his own glory is not narcissistic but loving, because it directs our attention away from ourselves to the one glorious reality that can satisfy our souls forever.”

“God’s self-glorification is not the alternative to our glorification but the foundation and goal of it, as Schreiner will make plain.”

“The real cultural bondage today is not that too many people are making God radically God-centered, but that most people cannot conceive of his being loving unless he is man-centered.”

And then came the zinger.

“To suggest that Tom Schreiner is ‘creating God in our own self-centered image’ because he says, with the apostle Paul, that God saves us ‘for the praise of his glory’ (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14) is less an indictment of Tom than of Ben.”

Sam Storms responds (11.26.07)

For such an important topic of debate, Piper’s response seemed a bit short. With a new generation of blog readers interested in Reformed theology and these topics of debate, bloggers need to clearly and carefully articulate issues for them.

So I was thankful to hear Sam Storms (a long-winded blogger) jump into the discussion. Storms — a scholar of Jonathan Edwards, former professor and the man featured by Enjoying God Ministries — took time to more fully explain how we benefit from God seeking to glorify Himself.

Storm’s “brief response” was likely the longest of the three.

Because God is our greatest good, God’s seeking to magnify His glory does not impede our good. This is a fascinating argument Jonathan Edwards presented. It’s worth reading Storm’s argument at length:

“The question I most often hear in response to this is that if God loves himself pre-eminently, how can he love me at all? How can we say that God is for us and that he desires our happiness if he is primarily for himself and his own glory? I want to argue that it is precisely because God loves himself that he loves you. Here’s how.

I assume you will agree that your greatest good consists of enjoying the most excellent Being in the universe. That Being, of course, is God. Therefore, the most loving and kind thing that God can do for you is to devote all his energy and effort to elicit from your heart praise of himself. Why? Because praise is the consummation of enjoyment. All enjoyment tends towards praise and adoration as its appointed end. In this way, God’s seeking his own glory and God’s seeking your good converge.

Listen again. Your greatest good is in the enjoyment of God. God’s greatest glory is in being enjoyed. So, for God to seek his glory in your worship of him is the most loving thing he can do for you. Only by seeking his glory pre-eminently can God seek your good passionately.

For God to work for your enjoyment of him (that’s his love for you) and for his glory in being enjoyed (that’s his love for himself) are not properly distinct.

So, God comes to you in his Word and says: ‘Here I am in all my glory: incomparable, infinite, immeasurable, unsurpassed. See me! Be satisfied with me! Enjoy me! Celebrate who I am! Experience the height and depth and width and breadth of savoring and relishing me!’

Does that sound like God pursuing his own glory? Yes.

But it also sounds like God loving you and me perfectly and passionately. The only way it is not real love is if there is something for us better than God: something more beautiful than God that he can show us, something more pleasing and satisfying than God with which he can fill our hearts, something more glorious and majestic than God with which we can occupy ourselves for eternity. But there is no such thing! Anywhere! Ever!”

Very well stated.

Conclusion

Like cutting open the chest and uncovering a beating heart, to understand that our sovereign God acts in all things, and at all times, for His own glory gets at the very heart of God’s motivation. I simply cannot think of a truth more clearly presented throughout Scripture, nor can I think of a more radical worldview-changing truth.

God always acts for His own glory.

If we take our eyes off God’s magnifying of Himself in all things, we will be tempted. We’ll be tempted to downplay the demands of the Law (because we will no longer view the Law as God’s preservation of His glory). We will misunderstand the work of Christ on the Cross (that Christ met the high standards of the Father’s glory). We will misunderstand our life purpose (we do all things to bring glory to God as an act of union with God Himself). And we will misunderstand Scripture’s picture of eternal worship (we will find it odd that we circle around the throne of the Father, the throne of the Son, the river of the Spirit and sing worship forever).

Here’s the irony. To view God’s motives of grace and salvation as ends terminating in our good is to reinterpret the biblical God by our own narcissistic hermeneutics. Our greatest good and eternal joy both stand squarely on God’s motive of magnifying Himself.

In summary, if we take our eyes off God in his magnifying of Himself, we will fail to understand everything else. But most sadly, we will miss our greatest pleasure – to glorify God by enjoying Him forever!

Here is the center of Calvinism, what we call Reformed theology.

10 thoughts on “God Magnifying God: A contemporary debate

  1. GREAT post tony thanks for keeping us up to date with whats going on in the church. TO SEE GOD in the Vision that we do thru the lens of edwards and piper among others namely that God does all for the the SAKE of HIS NAME ALONE is PURE GRACE!!!!!!!!!. im thankful for my God centered spectacles. when God moves toward me for HIS name alone then grace becomes truly amazing and sovereign!!!!! love you broTOM FLU

  2. It’s true that the only response we ought to give to the Supreme Being is praise, but I don’t get the idea that God does all these things for Himself. Maybe the passages are anthropomorphic in that they focus on the human response to God’s acts. Taken at face value they may seem to imply that God’s motives are selfish.

  3. Good summary of the debate. As someone from a more Witheringtonian perspective, I think you have been pretty fair all around, though of course, I would disagree with your conclusion. If I may, I think it is important to point out that Witherington has been vigorously responding to comments and criticisms on his blog (almost 90 by this point), interacting with various Old and New Testament passages exegetically. While you may not agree with his views, I think he deserves credit for offering a bit more than “scant” exegetical work here (though I understand that the majority of his exegetical responses have come after the fact).

    Warmly,
    DC

  4. God’s motives are inscrutable as far as He is concerned; however, as far as we mortals are concerned, His goodness has very strong implications for us.

  5. Thanks for this Tony. I think J Piper’s short response may be that he is getting tired of the same old flack at this point in his life so he does what he does best: he uses his 50 caliber machine gun and simply shoots out irrefragable scripture references. End of argument. period.

  6. Robin,

    I think the problem comes when we fail to see the context of the Trinity and the intra-Trinitarian love of God pouring itself over in the intra-Trinitarian glory of God. It is a mistake when people use verses such as Isaiah 48:9-11 at random and say, “Ah, see, it’s right here!” without placing the proper context. Even though those in Old Testament times didn’t know that God is three Persons, we do know and so we have an obligation to view all things in that context. The members of the Trinity ultimately act for one another, and therefore God’s love is others-centered from all eternity (yet because all three Persons are fully God, He is retained at the center).
    Furthermore, something many, many preachers fail to mention when preaching on this subject is what the elect possess in union to Christ (and that includes the love that God has for us). I wrote a comment on Dr. Witherington’s initial post offering up some thoughts and a few references from church history about God’s love to the believer on 11/26 at 11:38 P.M., which was basically something I wrote in response to Dr. Piper’s 11/24 post on the topic. Many people who are writing about this topic don’t seem to be taking the time to examine what the old preachers thought about God’s love and union to Christ (which is essential to getting a proper understanding of God’s glory), so perhaps my comment on Dr. Witherington’s post will provide you with some more insight.

    God bless.

  7. I like your point, it is not selfish in that context. Is it enough to say that what God does is glorious in and of itself? This is because He is glorious and beyond comprehension and His acts derive from His qualities. To say that His motivation is His glory brings about connotations of Him seeking something He wants (as if He were not complete).

  8. It really boils down to an all too common disease in our narcissistic illiterate postmodern age, even “bible scholars” simply don’t have the Bible as their basis for much of anything, sadly including me, the beam in my eye making me guilty of the sin I see elsewhere, God help us all.

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