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One of the critiques of John Piper's “Christian Hedonism” is that it is novel. In particular, some have argued that Piper's emphasis on enjoying the deity deviates from, or at least was unknown to, the Reformed Catechisms and Confessions. For example, in Desiring God Piper tries to counter (and does so successfully in my opinion) the claim by Richard Mouw that Christian Hedonism does not square with the opening lines of the Heidelberg Catechism (pp. 21-22). Others are wary of Christian Hedonism because it seems to put too much emphasis on subjective religious experience, an emphasis, it is said, which owes more to the Great Awakening than to the theology of the Reformers.

On this latter point, a comparison between Jonathan Edwards and Zacharias Ursinus (author of the Heidelberg Catechism) is instructive. Here's Edwards in his sermon A Divine and Supernatural Light on the rational and  the experiential nature of faith:

He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He don't merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing; but there is a sense of the loveliness of God's holiness. There is not only a speculative judging that God is gracious, but a sense how amiable God is upon that account; or a sense of the beauty of this divine attribute. (127)

Later, in distinguishing between a notional understanding of God and a "sense of the heart" Edwards remarks, "There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man can't have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind" (127-28). These are well known passages to anyone who has listened to Piper over the years.

What is less well known is that Ursinus speaks in the same way. I even wonder if Edwards at some point read the 16th century reformer's Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Here's Ursinus, in Edwardsian fashion, explaining the nature of justifying faith:

No man, however, truly knows what justifying faith is, except he who believes, or possesses it; as he, who never saw or tasted honey, knows nothing of its quality or taste, although you may tell him many things of the sweetness of honey. But the man who truly believes, experiences these things in himself, and is able, also, to explain them to others. (111)

Ursinus goes on to argue that with genuine faith, "Joy arises in the heart, in view of such benefits, which joy is accompanied with a peace of conscience that passes all understanding." Indeed, "He who truly believes, experiences all these things in himself; and he who experiences these things himself, truly believes" (111).

All of this may strike you as quire unremarkable. But it is a good reminder that the experiential nature of faith, the spiritual mark of delight in God, and the expectation of pervasive joy are not the inventions of John Piper. Nor are they owing only to the influence of Edwards and the Great Awakening. They go back to the Reformers themselves.

Who knows? Maybe Edwards read Ursinus.

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12 thoughts on “Christian History and Christian Hedonism: Did Edwards Read Ursinus”

  1. Rose says:

    I am reminded of discussions in which Christians, in an effort to “give all the glory to God” for their conversion will describe themselves as having been dragged “kicking and screaming” into the kingdom. This always makes me uncomfortable, for if one has not come willingly to God, how is it that he loves God? I think that what we are discussing when we discuss the role of emotions in the Christian life is the work of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe that the special gifts of the Holy Spirit given to the apostles to confirm the authenticity of their ministry continue, but I do believe that the definition of a Christian is one in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, for in this N.T. age he has been poured out on God’s people. It is by him that we cry “Abba, father!” and by him that we are given eyes to see and ears to hear things of the Spirit. I seem to remember being told that Calvin was called “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.”

  2. Bob Kellemen says:

    One theological reason that we don’t “get” the concept of desiring God, is that our theological anthropology is lacking. The Church Fathers, the Reformers, and the Puritans understood the Bible’s teaching on the “affections” as the holy of holies of the soul where we long, thirst, hunger, and desire. We also tend to confuse affections with emotions. The Puritans such as Edwards, Boston, Owen, understood that emotions were more reactive while affections were the helm that drove the ship (to use Owen’s language). The affections are God-designed relational motivations–longings and desires.

  3. Perhaps it is akin to Calvinism. Once the light goes on, you see the doctrine throughout Scripture. Once you grasp God as our greatest delight, you see the same ideas expressed by Calvin, Burroughs and more. It was always there, but you were blind to it. Edwards didn’t invent it, much less Piper. But thankfully they teach it.

  4. This is an interesting post, and shows some similarity of thought, even down to similar analogies, in these two men. I am not an expert on this, and this is not a critique of Edwards, but more of a question: I have become aware of the fact lately, but have not learned much more beyond awareness yet, that Edwards was influenced by Cambridge Platonism. I wanted to ask if you knew anything about that or how it might relate to these two theologians, their thought or even perhaps Edwards’ interaction with something with which Ursinus interacted. It seems that in the quote you presented from Edwards, while he advocates going beyond “speculative judging” to having a “sense” in the heart, he still emphasizes such speculative judging and rational belief leading to spiritual enlightenment, apprehension and sight. Ursinus, on the other hand, using similar language, seems to emphasize faith and belief, despite not being able to see. Do you think Edwards read Ursinus, but perhaps applied Platonism to his interpretation?

  5. And ten thousand times more importantly, they go back to the Scriptures themselves. For just a small sample, see Piper’s short article here.

  6. Tim McCormick says:

    And the Scriptures declare that the experience of tasting, delighting and longing is not reserved for a few “mystics.” It is (or should be) normal Christianity. Thanks for the post, Kevin.

    Hebrews 6:4-5
    …those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come…

    1 Peter 2:2-3
    Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

    Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! (Psalm 34:8)

  7. Brian W says:

    I think Christian Hedonism goes back even further than that.

    “God who is beyond fullness did not bring creatures into being out of any need of his, but that he might enjoy their proportionate participation in him and that he might delight in his works seeing them delighted and ever insatiably satisfied with the one who is inexhaustible.”

    St. Maximus the Confessor

  8. Luke Allison says:


    Where is the line between holding the healthy and necessary foundational truths of the Reformation tightly, and realizing that the Reformers were but men (and uninspired men in the purest sense of the word)? In my opinion, if the Psalmist exhorts the Covenant people of God to “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, I’m going to at least make a marked effort to understand what exactly that means.

  9. DrewK says:

    Quite a lineage. I think any who considered themselves Chistian Hedonists are in good company.” we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”

  10. I’m a big fan of Piper and this was real interesting post. I know St. Augustine had some similar sentiments of his passion for God and what not that has ties to “Christian hedonism”.

  11. Dan Elifson says:

    I am not sure that you have address Richard Mouw’s objection. The question is not whether God is our ultimate joy, but whether “Christian Hedonism” is an appropriate term and whether that foundation of joy is found in God seeking us through the gospel or something abstracted from the experience of the gospel.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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