Confession: I’ve read almost nothing from John Piper since undertaking Desiring God in college and deciding that I preferred the Augustinian-Lewisian form of ascetical theology unmediated and undefiled by the Reformed context Piper sets it. (“Undefiled” is merely an expression, of course. Settle down, Derek Rishmawy.)
So I had never seen this sermon on singleness and marriage by him
before someone sent it to me this week. It’s an excellent homily, which helps me better understand the affection many people have for him. In fact, I think it might be the nearest to a Roman Catholic account of marriage and celibacy from any evangelical Protestant I have encountered.
Piper’s central claim is that “God promises those of you who remain single in Christ blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children, and he calls you to display, by the Christ-exalting devotion of your singleness, the truths about Christ and his kingdom that shine more clearly through singleness than through marriage and childrearing.” (The italics are mine, of course—more on those in a minute.)
This theme gets developed by Piper through a biblical-theological tour of the place of procreation within God’s economy. The Old Testament, Piper (rightly) contends, places a considerable emphasis on progeny and inheritance. But it also looks forward to a time when progeny will not have a place of preeminence. Piper draws on Isaiah 56:5 to make his point, which reads: “Thus says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’” For Piper, the verse is prophetic: it points forward to the time when the “new people of God will be formed not by physical procreation but by the atoning death of Christ.” Naturally, this opens up into a reading of the New Testament’s overt destabilizing of procreative bonds. Marriage and procreation are secondary and temporal, forms of life bound to this world that is passing away—while celibacy is not.
That’s all well and good. But why the suggestion that it might be Catholic?
Note that Piper explicitly affirms the superiority of celibacy to marriage as a vocation within the Kingdom of God. It is the better than relationship that (broadly) distinguishes Roman Catholic and Protestant accounts of marriage and celibacy. In his treatment of marriage and virginity, for instance, Augustine makes much of the fact that celibacy is superior as a general vocation to marriage—even while those who are celibate may receive fewer rewards if they (say) indulge in the vice of pride because they are celibate.
Compare that kind of account with this from Oliver O’Donovan, which fails to mention this better than relationship: “[The New Testament church] conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatological transformation.” Piper is clearly closer to Augustine’s formulation than O’Donovan’s.
Note as well that Piper follows Augustine’s understanding of how rewards overlay with the vocations. He writes:
“One [answer] is that you will find out someday, and better to learn it now, that the blessings of being with Christ in heaven, are so far superior to the blessings of being married and raising children and that asking this question will be like asking: Wouldn’t it be better to have the ocean and the thimble full? And the second answer is that marriage and singleness both present us with unique trials and unique opportunities for our sanctification. There will be unique rewards for each, and which is greater will not depend on whether you were married or single, but on how you responded to each.”
In other words, celibacy offers a higher ceiling for rewards than marriage—but the married who are faithful will have more rewards than the celibate unfaithful. This is almost identical to Augustine’s position in De Virginitate.
Whether Piper would welcome being lumped in with Roman Catholics on this issue is, of course, an open question. I suspect he would not. The constant drumbeat over whether the position certain people around Revoice have taken on the nature of desire is compatible with Protestant understandings of concupiscence is understandable. But those pounding away might also want to look to one of their own heroes, and consider what the stakes are for Protestantism’s understanding of marriage and family of adopting the Augustinian line Piper clearly undertakes here.