Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

As I was thinking through the following prayer of Paul last week, several things occurred to me:

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. [Phil 1:9-11, ESV]

The logical order here is almost the reverse of the order Paul writes it in. He prays for these believers in Philippi that their love would increase so that they’ll approve what’s excellent. He prays that they’ll approve what’s excellent so that they will be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. He prays that they’ll be pure and blameless so that it will be to the glory and praise of God.

One thing to notice is that he prayed for their love to overflow in knowledge and all discernment. It doesn’t serve the goal of approving what’s excellent for them to love if they don’t love in knowledge and all discernment, because love wrongly applied might lead to approving of what’s not excellent. So I can understand why Paul would include that.

But I wondered what grammatical structure was really going on here. In which of the following ways is the prepositional phrase “in knowledge and all discernment” functioning?

1. The pool overflowed in the backyard.
2. The pool overflowed with water.

If it’s the former, then he’s praying that their love would overflow in the context of having knowledge and all discernment, so that the knowledge and all discernment can aid their love in serving to develop their approval of all that’s excellent.

If it’s the latter, then he’s praying that their love would overflow with the knowledge and all discernment that their love someone is producing out of itself.

I first read it as the latter, but it seems unlikely that he thought love would be the generating force for knowledge and all discernment for the sake of approving of what’s excellent. It seems more likely that he thinks love overflowing in an environment where there’s knowledge and all discernment would serve approval of what’s excellent. Love uses knowledge and all discernment to produce approval of what’s excellent. It doesn’t generate the knowledge and all discernment.

If this is right, then it provides an interesting motivation for seeking knowledge and understanding. Philosophers tend to approve of what we do because we think pursuit of knowledge is intrinsically good. It’s good in itself to have a better understanding of what’s going on in the world or of how various truths interact and explain other truths. Thinking through the nature of what’s true is simply worth doing, even if it never leads to any good consequences besides a better understanding of things.

I don’t see anything here to deny that, but I do see something here that might serve as a guide to a more important reason for caring about getting a good understanding of things. If knowledge is intrinsically good, that doesn’t mean that there’s no more important good that knowledge also serves. Paul seems to be taking the approval of what is excellent as a good that love together with knowledge and discernment can produce. I wonder if he’d even go as far as seeing that approval of what is excellent as a higher good. It is further along in his progress toward the goal that he says the whole succession leads to, which is God’s glory. But that’s compatible with every step of the succession being intrinsically good (contra John Piper, who on my reading reduces all other purposes to serving the glory of God).

If that’s right, then the pursuit of knowledge might best be guided by a higher motive of trying to pursue and acknowledge what is excellent, which in turn should be pursued in significant part because it can be an aid toward more excellent living. If this is a higher purpose than mere understanding, then it might change which things we spend more time on thinking about and might focus our efforts to arrive at the truth in a direction that serves thinking about what’s excellent for the sake of becoming a more excellent person. I’m not sure if many Christian philosophers spend a lot of time evaluating which things they think about in such ways, but it seems to me that it could have a major impact on Christians in the discipline if they did.

One final observation: the fact that the series ends in God’s glory might give pause to those who strongly resist the idea that God’s glory can be an ultimate goal that love can serve. As I’ve already indicated, I don’t agree with John Piper’s view that everything God does, including the entirety of God’s love, is purely for the sake of increasing God’s glory. Such a view doesn’t allow recognizing God’s love as intrinsically good or recognizing the objects of God’s love as intrinsically good. But it’s just as bad, I would say, to try to resist Piper by denying that God can love people in part because it gives him more glory. If Paul can pray that our love would grow, with the eventual goal of bringing glory to God, then surely love doesn’t rule out the possibility that it has a purpose of bringing such glory to God, and then God’s love itself also must not be mutually exclusive of the purpose of bringing glory to himself.

It may well be that Piper is right in saying that everything God does he does to bring glory to himself. What I would deny is that that’s God’s only purpose in everything he does. I think Piper is wrong to give a reductionist account of God’s motives, where everything reduces to his pursuit of his glory. But I wonder if those of us who question Piper on this can go too far if we insist that there are things that God does not do for his glory in any way. I think maybe the proper middle ground is to say that God does do everything he does for his own glory, as long as we also say that there are other motives God has for all the things he does that aren’t merely reducible to his pursuit of his own glory. They’re goals that have intrinsic worth of their own, and love is one of those.

[cross-posted at Parableman]

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift
More on: Biblical Studies

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles