Barth and Piper on the Relation of God’s Love and Glory

Every now and then, the work of John Piper flits across my mind. I read his Desiring God (Multnomah, 1996) during the period of transition from High School to College, but I have since come to be…let’s say…‘skeptical’ about the veracity of his position. In any case, I am working on a project with a faculty member here at PTS, and Piper’s work came up briefly there. So, he has been on my mind.

At the same time, I am reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics 2.1 (T&T Clark, 1985) for a PhD seminar currently underway, and I came across a bit of text (reproduced below) and the contrast between Barth and Piper jumped out at me. I wanted to post about it.

So, here are quotes from both Piper and Barth on the relation between God’s love and God’s glory. As you will see, Piper makes God’s love for us subordinate to God’s glory, while Barth makes God’s glory subordinate to God’s love for us.

“God’s ultimate goal therefore is to preserve and display his inifinte and awesome greatness and worth, that is, his glory. God has many other goals in what he does. But none of them is more ultimate than this. They are all subordinate. God’s overwhelming passion is to exalt the value of his glory. To that end, he seeks to display it, to oppose those who belittle it, and to vindicate it from all contempt. It is clearly the uppermost reality in his affections. He loves his glory infinitely. This is the same as saying: he loves himself infinitely.” (43)
“God’s loving is an end in itself. All the purposes that are willed and achieved in Him are contained and explained in this end, and therefore in this loving in itself and as such. For this loving is itself the blessing that it communicates to the loved…Certainly in loving us God wills His own glory and our salvation. But He does not love us because He wills this. He wills it for the sake of His love. God loves in realising these purposes. But God loves because He loves; because this act is His being, His essence and His nature. He loves without and before realising these purposes. He loves to eternity. Even in realising them, He loves because He loves.” (279)
I have the sneaking suspicion that if Piper had lead with his last thought in the quote about (that God loves himself infinitely), and subordinated the language of 'glory' to this, he would have arrived at a position similar to Barth's. As it is, notions of 'value' and 'worth' to which God is subordinated means that God's love cannot ultimately be free. There is a 'why' behind God's love (and a rather abstract metaphysical 'why' at that), a goal to which it is directed and to which it is the means. I prefer Barth's tack. God's very being is love, and that love is not a means to a further end. No further end exists. God's love is the end in itself.

In any case, one of these options seems decidedly more in line than the other with what the New Testament has to say about Jesus.


Like you, I would have to agree with Barth. Barth's view seems to me to agree what the Scriptures convey about our God. Piper conveys a God who is solely bent on holding up his reputation (glory). But God's true glory is exalted in Love, the Father glories the Son, the Son glorifies the Father, the Holy Spirit is the Bond of Love between Father and Son. All in all, God is gloried in being Love itself and loving towards His creation.

Thanks for posting this.
Anonymous said…
I'd be interested in hearing more about your skepticism towards Piper.

Also, i'd bet interested to know with whom Piper's work came up, and how.
Unknown said…
Thanks for posting this. We've often called Piper and some of his devotees 'Calvinist light,' which makes me wonder--how do you think Calvin would weigh in on this point?
Jason E. - Thanks for your note, and I'm glad to see that you are lurking around and reading whatever I post that may interest you.

Andy - Who knows when I may have reason to quibble with Piper on something. Keep your eyes open for when it happens. As with whom and how Piper came up, it would be inappropriate to discuss my private interactions with professors in anything more than the most allusionary ways. Sorry.

Jason I. - I'm not sure about Calvin. I have the feeling that you could find passages from him to fall on either side. Sorry I can't be more definitive here.
Glen said…
Know it's late but thought I'd add another Barth quote:

“The freedom of God is the freedom which consists and fulfils itself in His Son Jesus Christ. In Him God has loved Himself from all eternity. In Him He has loved the world.’ (CD II/1, p321)

God's self-love can only be thought of once we see the intra-trinitarian life.

Piper I feel *begins* with self-love and finds in that justification for the Father loving His Image.

See for instance the first chapter of "The Pleasures of God."

"We may conclude that the pleasure of God in his Son is pleasure in himself. Since the Son is the image of God and the radiance of God and the form of God, equal with God, and indeed is God, therefore God’s delight in the Son is delight in himself. The original, the primal, the deepest, the foundational joy of God is the joy he has in his own perfections as he sees them reflected in the glory of his Son."

This is indeed different to Barth.

I notice Piper has written another short piece on this very topic.

Somehow he manages to make from John 17 that Jesus' prayer is for His *own* glory!!

"If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me." John 8:54
Rob Burns said…
I stumbled across this tonight and found it really helpful.

Oddly enough I think there is some precedent for taking up the notion that God's love constrains what counts as 'glorifying' in Johnathan Edward's reflections on whether God 'wills' the damnation of the unbeliever in the same sense that he 'wills' eternal happiness. I wonder if Piper has ever reflected on this.

In asking whether both salvation and damnation 'glorify' God in the same measure, and if they do *not*, why not, Edwards is drawn, it seems to me, to 'love' as the determining category for circumscribing how far an act may reach the end of glorifying God, insofar as self-giving love most succinctly reflects the divine nature. In some sense, this sets the table for the claim in the Reformed tradition that Barth develops.

Edwards, in his brilliance, points up a central ambiguity in the Reformed tradition in the very way he wrestles with the question of damnation, insofar as he refuses to treat damnation as simply 'on par' with the divine decree regarding salvation. Piper, in passages such as the one cited below, seems more intent on drawing the logical circle to a close then dwelling in this instructive ambiguity. In his thinking, God is glorified equally, and in the same univocal sense, in the loss of the reprobate and the happiness of the elect.

In this he departs from the proper discontent and ambiguity of the best lights of his own tradition.

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