Book Summary and Review
chomping at the bit to dig into John Piper's new book The Future of Justification: A
Response to N. T. Wright. In biblical studies, this is the
equivalent of a cafeteria fight--"A fight, a fight," and everyone
scrambles from the table to watch.
And of course when the two people are notorious opponents, the fight becomes all the more salacious, like in Matrix when Neo and Morpheus are fighting in the virtual room.
Now neither Tom Wright nor John Piper would approve of this description of their disagreements. Indeed, I consider both of these to be godly men who will not only be in heaven but who, dare I suggest, may even be entirely sanctified--even though neither of them believe in the doctrine. Piper is gracious in his introduction to Wright, and indeed sent an earlier version of the book to Wright, who sent back an 11,000 word response.
[I feel compelled to make the major disclaimer that I detest Piper's particular version of Calvinism and his theology in general, but that is not my topic today. As he sees Wright a threat to sound theology, I see him as an enormously negative influence on American pop-theology]
But as extensive an influence as Piper has, he has seen the impact Wright is having on his circles. Piper explains that no one from his church has ever come up to him with one of James Dunn or E. P. Sanders' books. But they have come up to him with a rather large volume written by Wright. He feels the need to respond.
I should say that neither of these individuals represent my understanding exactly. As I read through Piper's introduction, I found myself sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing with his initial thoughts. I'm of course very sympathetic to aspects of the new perspective on Paul and Judaism. But I also agree with Piper that at times, Wright is in his own world.
And I laughed to myself when I read Piper's comment that Wright sometimes leaves his readers, "not with the rewarding 'ah-ha' experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity" (24). I know that feeling when reading Wright--what is he saying here?
The tone of
the introduction is humble. I infer that Piper recognizes that Wright is an
intellectual powerhouse. Piper's a preacher. I'm not calling him uneducated by
any means (he actually has a ThD). But he's tussling
with perhaps the most renowned Bible scholar of this century so far--not his
A number of Piper's comments also said to me, "I'm too old for this." :-)
Let me briefly list the main aspects of Wright's thoughts on justification to which Piper will take exception in the book:
1. That the word "gospel" does not mean for Paul "how to get saved"
I agree with Wright against Piper here.
2. That justification is not about how you become a Christian
I agree more with Piper than with Wright here.
3. That justification is not the gospel
Technically, I agree with Wright.
4. That we are not justified by believing in justification
OK, agree with Wright
5. That the imputation of God's righteousness does not make sense
Generally agree with Wright, as Paul uses the words.
6. That future justification on the basis of the complete life lived
Agree with Wright on this comment, but recognize Piper's point that Wright has redefined justification in a strange way.
7. That Judaism was not about "legalistic self-righteousness"
I agree more with Wright than Piper.
8. That God's righteousness is His covenant faithfulness to
I agree more with Wright than with Piper.
So on the whole, I will agree more with Wright than Piper on justification, although Piper I think rightly recognizes a number of eccentricities to Wright's reconstruction of Paul.
Between the Introduction and Chapter 1, Piper has a brief section called "On Controversy," where he gives his perspective on a fight like this one.
First, he has a somewhat "Wesleyan" quote from John Owen (1655): "When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth... when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts... then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all assaults of men" (28).
I felt that I should point that out :-)
But of course he turns next to one of the fathers of twentieth century American fundamentalism, J. Gresham Machen, who left Princeton and was one of the founding faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in
The Machen quotes of interest to Piper, however, are about his attitudes toward the controversies of his day:
"The New Testament is a polemic [attacking] book almost from beginning to end" (28).
"Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy" (29).
"Controversy of the right sort is good; for out of such controversy ... there comes the salvation of souls" (29).
Piper runs with one of Machen's themes in the rest of this section. Machen was recounting a professor encouraging fellow teachers to focus on 1 Corinthians 13 as the essence of Paul's teaching and to avoid controversy. Machen then noted that 1 Corinthians 13 itself could not be understood without noting the controversy Paul was addressing over spiritual gifts in the chapters before and after.
So Piper follows this lead: "it is remarkable how many of Paul's letters were written to correct fellow Christians" (30).
"... truth frees us from the control of Satan" ... "For the sake of unity and peace, therefore, Paul labors to set the churches straight on numerous issues--including quite a few that do not in themselves involve heresy" (31).
So how might we respond to Piper's thoughts here?
First, I am of course very interested in truth and would not be blogging on Piper's book if I did not desire to dismiss error. I also affirm orthodox Christian belief and am mindful of the serious line those cross who do not affirm it. I also believe at the same time that Piper (and Machen at least in these comments) have not accurately expressed the priorities of the apostle Paul.
So we must ask exactly what the nature of the controversies was that Paul attacked:
a. 1 Thessalonians--Paul does address a misunderstanding of doctrine, but he does not "attack" those who do not understand. He writes so that they will not be troubled about those who die before the second coming. His purpose is to encourage, not to fight.
b. 2 Thessalonians--Paul does indeed warn the audience about false information, but he does not "attack" anyone. He writes so that they will not be troubled by those with false teaching. His purpose again is to encourage the Thessalonians. His indirect response to a "rumor" about his thoughts is not in the form of a polemic.
c. Galatians--Paul is here polemical. He both attacks false teaching and shames the audience for their susceptibility to it.
But before we are deceived into thinking this instance is a straightforward illustration of Piper's orientation, let us remember a few very important aspects of Paul's argument in Galatians.
First, the issue is not abstract doctrine, but the manner in which Gentiles might not be accursed. In other words, the destiny of people is at issue, as well as Paul's own apostolic authority with his churches. Galatians is far more than a mere contention over doctrine.
Second, we should remember that Paul's debates in Galatians are not with non-believers but with other believers who do not agree with him. Indeed, he even recounts disagreements with Peter and James, and never says that they came to see it his way. It is canonically clear to us that he was right. But at the time it was perhaps just as likely that it looked to many he was wrong.
Third, Paul indicates in Galatians that the entire law is summed up in the word to love one's neighbor (Gal. 5:14). When all is said and done, love holds the ultimate place in his ethic, and his "doctrinal" treatments play a secondary role. Paul's correction of "doctrine" (in itself hardly the most appropriate word) is usually the servant of another, more affective goal like unity in fellowship (in contrast to unity of doctrine).
d. 1 and 2 Corinthians
While Machen's critique of a fellow scholar seemed justified, 1 Corinthians 13 is in fact Paul's solution to the Corinthian problem over spiritual gifts--love. Paul does in fact correct the Corinthians significantly. But his correction is not primarily about doctrine. The proposition of 1 Corinthians (1:10) is for them to be of the same mind, but anyone who thinks "mind" here is intellectual agreement or agreement on doctrine hasn't read very far into 1 Corinthians.
The disunity has to do with pride in leaders, boasts over spiritual knowledge and spiritual gifts, not disunity over doctrine. They do misunderstand resurrection, but Paul does not indicate that this is the key to the disunity in the congregation. There is a good deal of behavioral instruction in 1 Corinthians. In short, theology serves ethics and body cohesion in 1 Corinthians.
2 Corinthians has a majorly affective dimension. Related words referring to comfort are used almost 10 times in the space of about 5 verses in the first chapter.
Romans is Paul's most theological letter, and yet we misunderstand it if we see it as Melanchthon did--as a compendium of Christian doctrine. Paul is preparing to visit churches he has never visited before. He is hoping they will help him on his way to
In other words, Romans is a defense of the gospel that Paul preaches as he introduces himself to the churches at
It is mistaken to think of Romans primarily as a polemic on the topic of doctrine. It is more of an apologetic, a defense of his doctrine.
f. The Prison Epistles
Of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, only Colossians has majorly to do with issues of knowledge. Ephesians is primarily about the unity of Jew and Gentile, not doctrine per se. Philippians is about unity, but not unity of doctrine. When Paul urges them to have the same "mind" as Christ, it is the attitude of self-sacrifice (Phil. 2:3-4). Philemon is about forgiving the slave Onesimus. None of these books is fundamentally about Paul sparring over doctrine.
Even Colossians discourages far more than the adoption of a belief. "Philosophy" in Colossians cannot be taken in the sense we use it but is more of a set of religious beliefs and practices. Indeed, the group in question has visions and seems to follow certain ascetic practices.
g. The Pastoral Epistles
It is really in the Pastoral Epistles that we get a shift toward an emphasis on sound teaching. Yet 1-2 Timothy and Titus are hardly the place to start looking at Paul's theology. Even when we assume that Paul wrote them, we can't ignore how significantly their content differs from the teaching of Paul's other letters. Indeed, they scarcely contain any discussion of the doctrine of justification that drives Piper's book.
So while we have no problem with Piper defending his understanding of Paul, it is a serious defect of Piperism to think that it was all about the doctrines for Paul. Doctrine played a supporting role in the world of Paul's writings. More than anything else, Paul used theology in the service of things like ethics, body cohesion, and the inclusion of Gentiles within the body of Christ.
And that is the Wesleyan priority--heart first, head second. A personal relationship with Christ and a life lived that coheres with it, these are our priorities. We are interested in the head of course--but we have our priorities straight.
Chapter 1 "Caution: Not All Biblical-Theological Methods
and Categories Are Illuminating"
1. There is a truly ironic element that has peeked through a few times even in the brief 38 pages of this book I have read. The following statement is typical:
"I think we need a new generation of preachers who are not only open to new light that God may shed upon his word, but are also suspicious of their own love of novelty and are eager to test all their interpretations of the Bible by the wisdom of the centuries" (italics mine, 37-38).
In the context of this statement, Piper is discussing a quote from Wright in which Wright admits to being energized by his new reading of Paul. Piper suggests that Wright might unbeknowingly be fascinated with the new over the time-tested true.
Now of course Piper admits in a footnote that this is not how Wright perceives his delight at the "freshness" of his reading of Paul. I know what Wright is saying. Wright is saying that his interpretation works so well in reading the text in context that it is exciting in a way that the text wasn't to him before.
Piper's warning is fair enough to consider at some point--is Wright subconsciously enticed by the new when there was nothing wrong with the old interpretation. Wright of course would say no, this is not what's going on. I suspect that the freshness we will find in Wright is more light in a dark room than a quest for novelty for its own sake.
But what is so fascinating about Piper's comments is his appeal to the magisterium, to tradition as the arbiter of interpretation! Has Piper suddenly turned catholic?!
Here is Piper again: "It is sobering to hear him [Wright] say, for example, 'The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot--at least in terms of understanding Paul--and they have stayed there ever since" (37).
Ha! Didn't Erasmus say something like this about Luther--"It is sobering to hear Luther saying..."
I welcome Piper's recognition that the consensus of the church counts for something in the appropriation of Scripture. It cannot change the original meaning of the Bible, but in my theology it does have a strong say in how we read it as Christians.
But on this point a blind spot in Piper's own pre-modern approach to Scripture is exposed.
2. In a very brief four pages, Piper in his own way recognizes the problem of biblical theology. He is wrestling with the complications of reading the NT in the light of its first century background. His three brief warnings are fair enough:
a. What if you misunderstand the first century source?
Piper's argument here is that the first century texts are less studied than the NT ones and therefore are more prone to misunderstanding than the biblical ones, for which we also hopefully have the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
There is a legitimate warning here. Sometimes scholars have taken a hypothetical reconstruction of some extra-biblical text and then shoved it down the throat of a biblical text. However, we are just as prone to bring clearly anachronistic "definitions" to the biblical text that are simply part of our own tradition and have no clear connection to what people were thinking in the first century.
When there is so much disagreement among Christian groups, it behooves those who would be theological leaders in their traditions at some point in their life to examine the historical categories they have inherited. Most Christian traditions are, from a standpoint of probability, more likely to be wrong than right on the beliefs that are particular to their tradition, simply because they are in the minority on those ideas. This is not an argument for abandoning distinctives, only a pointing out that we as individual traditions are most likely to be eccentric at our points of uniqueness.
The idea of the illumination of the Spirit here is fascinating. I have come to a conclusion of late when it comes to a wide variety of Reformed thinkers from Barth to Van Til to Platinga and Wolterstorff to Vanhoozer to Smith to Piper. Here I am thinking of the way in which their "Reformed epistemologies" hang in air without support, without the need to be supported by argument or prop. I am speaking of their underlying sense that the Spirit illuminates to where their foundations are somewhat intuitive, "properly basic."
What occurred to me is that this approach to truth is of a piece with the spirit of their theology, namely, its predestinarian orientation. While they might not articulate it in this way, I believe there is at least a subconscious tendency to hang the foundations of their view on air because of the sense that God will cause the elect to resonate with these truths.
A recent conversation with a scholar from the Reformed tradition brought this home. This person has a colleague who would like to believe in Christianity, but simply cannot bring his mind to do so. This Reformed scholar was somewhat at a loss as to what to do with the colleague. All he knew to do was to give the individual things to read. But clearly the person knew enough already to respond. God simply had not led him to respond at this point, in this person's Reformed theology.
Now there are similar issues for Wesleyan-Arminians with regard to free will, so I am not claiming to be without difficulties. I am simply pointing out that the Reformed tradition lends itself to inaction when it comes to proofs because of its overall paradigm.
b. What if we assume a first century source represents a first century view when it was only one first century view among many?
Again, this is a fair enough warning. Whether it applies to Wright, however, we will have to see in specific cases.
c. What if an individual author departs from the first century view?
Now this comment, although Piper does not really explore it, is a crucial question for all biblical interpreters. After we have examined all the first century literature that we can, we have to leave room for innovation on the part of the NT author. More importantly, as Christians who believe in revelation, we must leave room for divine supervention in the meaning of the text.
For lack of better terms, we must leave open the possibility of the supernatural and not limit our interpretation to the natural. What I am calling a "natural" interpretation is one that asks, "What is the most likely meaning of this text in the light of the paradigms and definitions of the time?"
This issue arose recently in a paper I delivered on Hebrews. In that paper, I suggested it would be quite unlikely that the earliest Christians would have immediately thought that Christ's death atoned for all the sins of all time and that there was no longer any need for sacrifice. I suggested that this idea may not have coalesced until the time of Hebrews, although it is possible that Paul held this view as well.
Now my reading of early Christianity here is a natural one--it is based on the views we find in books like 2 and 4 Maccabees toward the "atoning" value a noble human death might have. A good question was asked by a Christian in the audience, however. If I might rephrase it, it went something like this: "Wouldn't we as Christians expect God to reveal the unprecedented nature of Christ's death to the apostles?"
This was a great question for a believer. Although he didn't put it in these terms, he was pointing out that the "natural" reading of the first century evidence might not be sufficient in the light of a "supernatural" situation.
My method is, first, to attempt a natural reading of a biblical text--its most likely meaning in its original historical-cultural context. When that interpretation differs from the traditional Christian reading of that text, caution lights go off that say to take care and double check.
[I might add as a sidenote that I can distinguish the original meaning from the canonical one, so I do not feel a need to choose between the two so that the text has a single correct meaning. For me it can have an original meaning that was appropriate for its place in the flow of revelation and a canonical one that has as much to do with the consensus of Christendom under the leadership of the Holy Spirit]
When the natural does not seem to account for what's going on, then I take recourse to supernatural explanations.
Let me put this method into perspective. It was once traditional to think that thunderstorms were spiritual storms in which either God was angry or demons were at play. It was once traditional to see sickness as punishment for sin. Perhaps sometimes God does direct storms or make people sick for sin. But most of the time, I suspect barometric pressures and fronts and germs and viruses are responsible.
The distinction between natural and supernatural is clearly a modern one and one that needs to be seriously questioned. But it was not born of whim or fancy, and we would not have cell phones or satellites if we continued to think that physical events are simply the whim and fancy of angels and demons.
The freshness of which Wright speaks is the realization that, most of the time, the biblical texts fit very well within their historical contexts. When at
What I have concluded is that God revealed the Bible in terms that the original audiences could understand. The words of the Bible are incarnated truths, not truths in some bubble. If these words were not intelligible within first century paradigms, then the very audiences they say they addressed could not have understood them.
Chapter 2 "The Relationship between Covenant and Law-Court
Imagery for Justification"
Justification as Covenant Membership?
In this chapter Piper deals with what indeed is one of Wright's more idiosyncratic views, namely, "Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian" (What Saint Paul Really Said, 122, 125). Or in another place Wright says, "Justification, for Paul, is not (in Sanders' terminology) how one 'gets into' God's people but about God's declaration that someone is in" ("New Perspectives on Paul," in Justification in Perspective, 261).
In other words, to use E. P. Sanders' words, N. T. Wright denies that "justification" is "transfer terminology," to "make righteous."
I agree with Piper that Wright's understanding of Paul on this topic is peculiar and confusing. Wright's varied ways of circling around this concept are like someone whose attempts to explain something only confuse you more.
Piper argues that Wright's understanding of justification, "conflates implication and definition." In other words, certainly justification implies that a person is now part of the people of God. But Wright doesn't want to say that. For Wright, justification seems to indicate that one is already in. For Wright, justification is the declaration that you are in.
At the same time, Wright sees justification as law-court language as well. Piper quotes Paul in Fresh Perspective when Wright says that "belonging to the covenant" (i.e., what Wright believes justification declares) means "forgiven sinner" (121). I find this confusing, and I am not alone.
Where I think the confusion lies is with Wright's idiosyncratic views of covenant, something I'm sure Piper will give us ample opportunity to examine. Let me try to "de-covenantify" Wright's language so that his views seem more plausible in relation to Paul.
What if Wright were to say that justification is a declaration of our innocence, the verdict of "not guilty" pronounced at our trial? In that sense, the verdict would presuppose forgiveness. The verdict would presuppose atonement. But the verdict would not be exactly identical to forgiveness or atonement. It would be the pronouncement of a legal verdict, a declaration if you would, that presupposed those things.
If this is what Wright is saying--but obfuscating by introducing his covenant ideas into the mix--then his comments begin to make more sense.
The problem is of course that legal language (from an illocutionary standpoint :-) is not simply language of assertion or declaration. The pronouncement of a verdict establishes that declaration as the official status of the defendant. In that sense, to limit justification to a declaration is inadequate. The innocence of the defendant is legally established in the declaration.
Piper does not express his objection to Wright with this clarity, but he rightly points out passages in Paul that redirect Wright's focus:
"God reckons righteousness [dikaiosyne] apart from works" (Rom. 4:6)
"A person is justified [dikaioo] by faith apart from works of law" (Rom. 3:28)
Piper rightly sees that these are roughly equivalent statements and thus that to justify is to "reckon righteous" (Piper prefers the NASB translation "credit righteousness"). Paul's use of Psalm 32 in Romans 4 further clarifies what this involves:
"Blessed are those whose lawless acts have been forgiven
And whose sins have been covered.
Blessed is the one to whom the Lord does not reckon sin" (
Wright is probably correct to steer us away from seeing such language in isolation from the Jew-Gentile issue. But it remains to be seen whether he has done this in a way that helps or truly clarifies these nuances in Paul's thought. I'm sure there is more to come on this topic.
I'm sure it made great sense to Piper to discuss Wright in relation to penal substitution in this chapter. Penal substitution plays such a focal role in Piper's theology that he can hardly think of justification without thinking about who is paying the check for this "credit" we get. In that sense, I think the explanation of justification I have made above is not exactly the way Piper thinks of it.
Penal substitution is the idea that, in some way, Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross.
Piper takes some time in this chapter to discuss what has been a very controversial matter in his circles, namely, Wright's endorsement of a book by Steve Chalke entitled The Lost Message of Jesus. In a now famous line in that book, Chalke suggests that if the cross was a personal act of violence on God's part, it makes a mockery of Jesus' teaching to love your enemies and is tantamount to cosmic child abuse (182-83 of Chalke's book).
Wright has made a lengthy blog response to this controversy, indicating his support of penal substitution as a biblical idea and defending Chalke as a believer in it as well. Piper is skeptical whether Chalke believes in it and while accepting that Wright does, once again suggests that Wright's comments on the subject have been confusing.
Wright himself suggests that there is more than one understanding of penal substitution and that Chalke simply does not have the form most vigorously argued in certain evangelical circles (e.g., Piper's).
Certainly the idea of penal substitution is major for Piper's theology. Piper is a "7 point Calvinist," by which I mean he thinks God not only has predestined those who will be saved but also those who will be damned, Adam (6th point), and even Satan (7th point). The affirmation that God is love is devoid of any familiar meaning in this system.
We might summarize Piper's theology here as "God so loved himself that He sent His only Son (admiring Himself greatly for so doing), that whoever He has chosen to save will irresistably believe and so have eternal life." Love has no meaning whatsoever in Piper's system. It amounts to little more than divine masturbation.
So Piper will not be able to see the real tension between the biblical affirmation that God is love (presumably using that word in its normal sense rather than some convoluted way that alters it beyond recognition) and the orthodox perspective that God had to punish sin. This is the orthodox Christian perspective, although books such as Joel Green and Mark Baker's Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, show how Piper's version of it is an extreme form of the idea.
I personally think Green and Baker's book represents the opposite extreme. Nevertheless, they raise very important and significant questions. For example, it seems to contradict the sovereignty of God to suggest that He would not be allowed, by divine fiat, to forgive us of our sins without someone needing to pay. Jesus' parables do not in any way point to a doctrine of penal substitution. For example, the father of the prodigal son does not tell the prodigal that he'd be glad to welcome him back... as long as he can find someone to pay back the debt he has incurred. Rather, the father seems to have the authority to pronounce the son forgiven, period.
For this reason, it seems clear to me that while penal substitution is one appropriate way to understand Christ's atonement, it is not the only one or even the central Christian one. Piper's views on atonement are extreme and ultimately unbiblical in focus.
Chapter 3 "The Law-Court Dynamics of Justification and the
Meaning of God's Righteousness."
1. Piper begins the chapter by touching on Wright's sense that justification language is "eschatological," that is, that it is most literally oriented around the final law-court scene at the judgment. By the way, here is the link to one of Wright's most direct treatment of this topic.
I imagine that Piper will return to this aspect of Wright's thought. The things that Paul has to say about "final justification," in my opinion, undermine Piper's theology, namely, Paul's indication that our works will play a role in our justification at the judgment. Indeed, I suspect Paul's comments may undermine Wright's theology as well on this point.
For the moment, however, Piper merely questions whether comments like these are too sweeping: "Justification ... in its Jewish context ... refers to the greatest lawsuit of all: that which will take place on the great day when God judges all the nations" (57). Piper responds that "it is misleading to create the impression that when the word justification is used, the first or main thought coming to anyone's mind would be final, eschatological judgment" (58).
Now of course the real question for us is not the most frequent use of the word justification in Webster's AD50 Jewish Dictionary. The question is how Paul used the word. I think Piper may be right that Wright sometimes makes sweeping generalizations like this that we might easily question. In this chapter, Piper only gives some examples--I presume from the Septuagint (I didn't look them up)--showing that Jews could use the word "to justify" in the present tense.
Like I said, I hope Piper doesn't sweep this topic under the rug in the rest of the book (I'm not expecting him to). In this chapter he merely says, "There are references in the future tense; however, not even all these are obviously a reference to the last judgment" (Rom. 2:13; 3:20; Gal. 2:16; Matt. 12:37). Instead, "in the theological sense in the New Testament, it far more often refers to the present reality of justification, not the future" (58).
I agree that it often refers to "initial" justification in the present and past tenses. At the same time, I believe Romans 2 and 2 Corinthians 5 will significantly undermine Piper's understanding, whenever he comes to treat them.
2. By far, however, Piper gives the bulk of the chapter to the question of God's righteousness. Using the law-court scene, Wright argues that it makes no sense to think of a judge in some way transferring or imputing or imparting his or her righteousness to the defendant. As Wright says, "That makes no sense at all" (60). It is a "category mistake." A judge might pronounce a verdict on the guilt or innocence of a defendant. A judge does not transfer his or her innocence--in actuality or theory--to a defendant.
Wright's illustration is powerful and convincing. It is of course another question when we ask whether it is the right illustration to unlock what Paul was thinking. But no doubt recognizing the power of Wright's claim, Piper immediately turns back to the Protestant magisterium. How could Christians for 1500 years since Augustine have been wrong on justification, "Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox" (60). Look, an appeal to the consensus fidei in Piper!
Further, Wright is setting himself up to be a kind of Martin Luther figure in Christian history, Piper argues, drawing on a comment Wright makes in the piece I linked above. So Piper might say in the words of Senator Lloyd Benson some years ago, "Son, I knew Martin Luther, and you're no Martin Luther."
In the end, of course, it is the text of Paul in dialog with his historical-cultural milieu that we are pursuing in this blog series.
Now Piper embarks on his own "common sense" thinking. It doesn't make sense, Piper argues, to define God's righteousness as the fact that God keeps covenant, judges impartially, deals properly with sin, and advocates for the helpless (62). Piper reasons, these are things that God's righteousness does, not what it is. They do not tell us what the "right" is in God's righteousness.
Piper then acts like he is going to tell us exactly what God's nature is, what stands behind His righteous actions. Here Piper presents several OT passages of key interest in his dissertation about God's glory and name, finally to conclude that "the righteousness of God consists most basically in God's unswerving commitment to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory" (66). (big surprise). No,wait, where is the nature of the "right" in God's righteousness Piper was going to tell us about?
But you have to give Piper credit for what he says next: "All of this would not matter much for interpreting Paul if there was no clear internal evidence that he thought this way about the righteousness of God" (66). I agree. In fact, this is why I am basically ignoring Piper's common sense argument and stroll through OT passages about how God blots out sin for his name's sake. Unless we have good reason to think Paul reasoned Piper's way, unless we have good reason to think these passages stand directly in the background of Paul's thoughts on the righteousness of God, Piper has just wasted three pages of my time.
On the one hand, Piper's study of the glory of God and the name of God in Romans is significant. Paul does refer to the glory of God in Romans 1:23 and the name of God in 2:23-24. We would not want to deny that God is glorious for Paul or that it is essential to honor His name.
Piper correctly demonstrates a connection between God's righteousness and His glory by showing the parallel between Romans 3:5 and 3:7 (69):
3:5--"If our unrighteousness shows the righteousness of God..."
3:7--"If through my lie God's truth abounds to his glory..."
Where I disagree is when Piper then equates God's righteousness with his glory (is glory finally the content of the "right" in righteousness Piper was going to tell us about?). God's righteousness is glorious to be sure, but it isn't his glory or the value of His name.
Indeed, we depart company with Piper when we get to the interpretation of Romans 3:23: "All [i.e., both Jew and Gentile] have sinned and are lacking the glory of God." Piper of course does not translate the verse in this way. For him, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," a statement that we lack the glory of God because we have exchanged it for the glory of corruptible humanity (66-67).
I appreciate the attention Piper has given here in tracing the word glory through Romans 1 to 3. But I'm not sure what it would mean to "fall short of" the glory of God in this vein. Is it a shorthand for "fall short of [recognizing] the glory of God"? Or does Piper mean to say that we fall short of attaining God's glorious standard of righteousness (similar to the NLT translation)?
In the end, I agree with Dunn that Paul has Psalm 8 in view here: "What are mortals, that you think of them; the sons of mortals, that you visit them? You crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet." 1 Corinthians 15 shows that this passage forms a significant part of inner logic of the problem and solution of humanity. Indeed, this logic stands behind Hebrews 2:5-10.
So what Paul is saying in Romans 3:23 is that all have sinned and, as a result, lack the glory God intended humanity to have in the creation, the glory of God, a glory God created humanity initially to have (or in Piper's scheme, that God pretended to create humanity to have, only to take away). It is no surprise that Piper would not lean toward this interpretation, for it shows far too much true interest and investment in humanity on God's part for Piper's liking.
We observe a similar concept avoidance in Piper's understanding of Romans 9:23:
9:23--"To make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory..."
Piper assumes that the glory for which God created humanity is God's own glory. No doubt that is true too. But the parallelism with 9:22 "vessels made for destruction" implies that here, as in 3:23, the vessels of mercy were prepared for them to have glory. In other words, it is the glory of humanity that Paul is thinking in the last part of this verse, not God's own glory.
As we said above, Piper's conclusion is that the righteousness of God is "God's unwavering commitment to his glory," "his unwavering allegiance to uphold the value of his glory" (70).
Now there's no question in my mind that no human deserves God's favor in Paul's theology. There's no question in my mind that everything for Paul ultimately must bring glory to God. But Piper has jumbled some things together here and made a big jump in the process.
First, the only textual evidence Piper has really presented to the effect that Paul used the phrase "the righteousness of God" in connection with God's glory is in Romans 3:5 and 7, where we might just as well see God's righteousness as glorious rather than as His glory itself. The most glaring omission in this discussion, understandably, is Romans 1:17.
And even if God's righteousness were His glory, this would be different from saying that His righteousness is His commitment to His glory. I imagine Piper might clarify some of these things for us. If so, let me say of him what he said of Wright--if I am wrongly understanding him, he sure could have represented the righteousness of God in a clearer manner.
3. It seems to me that Wright has shifted slightly over the years in the way he talks about the righteousness of God. In What Saint Paul Really Said, he clearly leans toward understanding the righteousness of God as God's covenant faithfulness in action. But I noticed in his more recent Paul in Fresh Perspective that he is now using the phrase "covenant justice" (e.g., p. 30).
Looking at Romans 3:25, Piper rightly recognizes that justice must be a part of what God's righteousness involves (67-68). God offers Christ as an atoning sacrifice to show His righteousness even though He passed over sins that had been committed. Indeed, although Piper doesn't mention it, the fact that Romans 1:18--
"the wrath of God is revealed from heaven"
"in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed"
shows that the wrath of God is associated with His righteousness (just as Piper points out his glory is associated with it). Piper wouldn't point this out, of course, because he no doubt takes Romans 1:16 in the Reformation way--not as a reference to God's righteousness, but to human righteousness from God.
So God's justice is indeed a part of God's righteousness. On this we agree with Piper. Of course, Wright does too. Piper dismisses Wright's claim that covenant fidelity is God's righteousness includes His justice (70 n.18). But I've already mentioned that Wright can use the phrase "covenant justice," by which He no doubt means that the covenant not only included God's merciful faithfulness to Israel but also His justice when they sinned.
With the mention of Romans 1:15-16, however, we get to the heart of the matter.
"I am not ashamed of the gospel [of Jesus Christ], for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith (Jew first, and also to the Greek). For in [the gospel], the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith..."
It is now the majority position of Pauline scholars that the phrase, "the righteousness of God" here refers not to a righteousness from God, as the NIV translates it, but to God's righteousness. The major turning point came with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The document called the Covenant of Damascus, for example, strikingly states that "My justification is in God's righteousness."
But Piper might question how relevant such a source is, which is a valid question. What convinced me was not the Dead Sea Scrolls, but Isaiah. How many times in Isaiah 40-66 is God's righteousness in synonymous parallelism with His salvation!
Here's just one example in Isaiah 51:5:
"My righteousness draws near. My salvation has gone forth."
Notice that, as in Romans 1:16-17, God's righteousness is connected to His propensity to save His people. Isaiah also connects it to His justice and His glory as well. Piper gets these latter connections. He would probably allow me to connect it to God's salvation too--as long as I made it clear that such salvation brought God glory in the process.
In that sense, Piper's understanding of God's righteousness is just plain too one-sided. It recognizes the punative side of God's righteousness and the fact that His righteousness is glorious. But it does so in a way that trivializes Paul's sense that God's righteousness includes His propensity to save.
I should also mention that Wright is more correct than wrong to process God's righteousness through
Chapter 4 "The Law-Court Dynamics of Justification and the
Necessity of Real Moral Righteousness"
1. Piper's preceding chapter, chapter 3, made me think. In it Piper did some good exegetical spade work. He showed that there was a connection in Paul's mind between God's glory and His righteousness (chiefly Romans 3:5 and 7). He made a case for the "glory of God" in Romans 3:23 being us falling short [of recognizing] the glory of God--at least I think that's the case he was making. I didn't end up agreeing with him on this point, but he rightly pointed out how significant the category "the glory of God" is in Paul's language.
But then I believe Piper went over the top. It is one thing to recognize God's righteousness as glorious. It is quite another to jump to the conclusion that God's righteousness is "his unwavering allegiance to uphold the worth of his glory" (e.g., 79 in recap). With a night of sleep under my belt, here is a list of exceptions I take to this jump:
a. For one, Piper has not really given us any more of a definition of what the "right" in God's righteousness any more than Wright has. I put a smiley face in the margin of my book on page 78 after he recaps his critique that Wright tells us what God's righteousness does rather than what it is. Then Piper says it "is his unwavering allegiance to do what is right." HA! Physician heal thyself.
By the way, lest anyone get the wrong impression, I don't have a horse in that race. I am not concerned to define what the essence of "right" is in God's righteousness. There's so much extraneous philosophical baggage and presupposition in Piper's whole logic here that in my mind is foreign to Paul. I am content to define God's righteousness in Paul as God's propensity not only to judge sin but to save His people and, indeed, the whole world. And yes, His righteousness is glorious. I'm sure I could improve on the definition, make it neater. But as far as accounting for how Paul uses the concept, this definition seems to account for all the ways Paul uses the phrase and concept.
b. I do not believe that Piper has shown that the key to understanding sin in Paul's thought is a failure to acknowledge God's glory. He has shown us Romans 1:23--they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the images of.... But Paul is not defining sin here. Piper has taken one aspect of human sinfulness and made it the fundamental definition of human sinfulness. He's shifted Paul's emphasis. We do much better to operate with a basic definition of sin in Paul's writings as "doing wrong" and go from there, rather than starting eisegetically with some very well developed theology of sin and reading it into all the other places where the word group is used.
Piper has shown us Romans 3:10-11--No one is righteous... no one seeks God... But Paul is not defining the nature of sin here. In fact, it's not even him freely composing these words--he's quoting the OT. The dot-dot-dot shows that Piper has taken one element in a poetic presentation of human sinfulness and in so doing has placed undo emphasis on it.
c. Piper predictably underestimates the most important part of God's righteousness in Paul's writings, namely, God's propensity to save His people. Yes, God's righteousness also involves His wrath and justice... oh, and it is glorious. But Paul is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16). You see, he says, the gospel reveals the righteousness of God (Rom. 1:17).
2. With Piper having gone over the top in chapter 3, I found myself unable to find anything helpful at all in chapter 4. This is the first chapter where this has been the case. In all the other chapters I have at least partially agreed with him or found something of exegetical merit. Not chapter 4.
Piper's subconscious knew what people like me would say (or else one of his many proofreaders pointed it out to him). He protests on p.76: "This question is not driven by logic."
It is. In fact, the entire chapter is driven by Piper's reasoning rather than by anything Paul has to say. And I'm going to have to start counting the number of times he mentions the 1500 years thing. Are we at 3 or 4 times now. The discussion just can't have been that off track for 1500 years (80 n.5)! Celibacy of priests and purgatory, anyone?
His reasoning is this:
1. Judges can't give a verdict of "not guilty" when the defendant is guilty. They can show clemency, but this is not what it means "to justify."
2. Since God is omniscient, He knows the true status of the defendant.
3. Therefore, God can only justify the human defendant if He finds true moral righteousness in him (or her, Piper predictably assumes the defendant is a him but no doubt would on follow up admit that there are also female defendants as well).
4. This true moral righteousness results from the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the defendant.
There's not much Scriptural argument in this chapter. It is rather a presentation of Piper's theological reasoning. I don't think Paul would recognize most of it.
Point #1 reflects Piper's extreme understanding of penal substitution. God just can't pronounce someone not guilty if they're guilty. He's not sovereign enough to do that (note to those who didn't recognize this sentence as sarcasm: this sentence was sarcasm).
The primary Pauline Scripture that Piper brings into discussion in this chapter is Romans 4:6-8:
Just as also David speaks of the blessedness of the person to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works:
Blessed are those whose lawless acts have been forgiven
And whose sins have been covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not reckon sin.
There is no mention of Christ in these verses. Indeed, it is faith in God that Paul consistently discusses throughout this chapter, not faith in Christ. Similarly, Christ does not do anything in this chapter. God does it to Christ--God raises him up for our justification.
Note: God doesn't deliver him up for our justification!!! God raises him for our justification. Piper would of course want to word it differently: God sacrificed Christ so that he could justify us.
The mechanism of righteousness in Romans 4 is not Christ's imputed moral righteousness--where is THAT in this chapter? It is human faith in God, faith in a God who justifies the ungodly (4:5), gives life to the dead (4:17), and who raised Jesus from the dead (4:24). That faith is reckoned for righteousness (4:5).
Paul does use penal imagery, sometimes. But it is not even the dominant image in his logic. We skew Paul's logic elsewhere when it is not a part of his argument and we make it a part of his argument.
Piper has already shown us in an earlier chapter the parallel between "reckoning righteousness" in 4:6 and justification in 3:28. Here in 4:8 Paul thus explains what justification means in negative terms--not to reckon sin. To find the defendant "not guilty" or "innocent." Nothing is said of Christ's innocence being necessary in the process.
As I've said in other contexts about other things, Piper would not have written Romans 4 this way. If his understanding of imputation was as important to Paul as it is for him, it would be here as part of the argument.
So Piper has not read this chapter at all on Paul's terms but has instead foisted his foreign theological baggage on Paul.
Chapter 5 "Justification and the Gospel: When is the Lordship of
Jesus Good News?
In this chapter Piper is reacting to Wright statements like the following:
"[T]he doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by 'the gospel'. It is implied by the gospel... But 'the gospel' is not an account of how people get saved" (What Saint Paul Really Said, 132-33).
Piper, more than anything else, has one major problem with this statement: if Paul had Piper's theology, he doesn't think this statement would be true. Oops.
The bottom line, Piper insists, is that the gospel is "an absolutely terrifying message to a sinner who has spent all his [or presumably her] life ignoring or blaspheming the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and is therefore guilty of treason and liable to execution" (86). So how can the fact of justification in the face of such guilt not be a part of the good news?
Once again, as with Reformed theology in general, we see that the driving force behind Piper's issue is logical and rational rather than biblical. There are three major problems with Piper's thinking here, in addition to the fact that admitting he's wrong requires him to admit he has been somewhat off in his preaching for the last 50 years.
1. The first problem is linguistic.
There's a reason why Piper tries to undermine the idea of reading the words of the NT in the way people used words in the first century world--because it exposes the fact that "1500 years" of Christian theology often did not read the Bible's words in the way Paul and other NT author's meant them. It exposes the pretenses of Reformers like Calvin to get back to the Bible alone as only less developed interpretations than the Roman Catholics--but still significantly developed by tradition.
a. But unfortunately for Piper, both the most likely Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds for the word euangelion don't come out in favor of his position. If we go Greco-Roman, Wright correctly notes that the word "gospel" was often used in a political context to announce things like the birth of a successor to the throne or a stunning victory in battle.
That doesn't of course mean Paul couldn't use the word in relation to justification by faith. But we would expect the unusualness of such a reference to stand out in his writings. But what we find instead is that the gospel is "the gospel ... concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David ... and set apart as Son of God in power by the resurrection of the dead" (Rom. 1:2-3).
Sorry Piper. He tries to make an end run around Paul's own words by turning to a sermon in Acts. But even there justification is not what is said to be the gospel. It is the resurrection and enthronement of Jesus as cosmic king that is said to be the gospel, not justification by faith, which as Wright says is implied in the gospel, not what the word gospel itself refers to (Acts 13:32-37).
Piper also turns to 1 Cor. 15, but stops the quote in mid-stream. Like Marcion who chopped up Paul's writings to say what he liked, Piper effectively reduces 15:1-5 to "I want to remind you of the gospel ... that Christ died for our sins." Sounds extremely convincing because Piper has omitted the rest of the passage (although even here we should note that this statement says nothing about justification). What follows must also be the gospel--"that he was buried" (great news!). And of course we finally get to the heart of the gospel message, "he was raised on the third day."
Piper also argues that Paul includes justification in what he means by the gospel by noting that Romans 10:10 mentions justification after 10:9:
"one believes and is justified."
Piper brings this up because Wright connects to the content of the gospel to 10:9 (although we should note that Paul does not actually use the word gospel here):
"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
But Wright agrees that justification is implied in the gospel, so 10:10 says nothing more than Wright says. Piper is blurring cause with effect, as he has elsewhere accused Wright of doing.
b. Of course as Wright points out, the most likely background for the gospel language of both Paul and Jesus is in the middle part of Isaiah (just as we saw with Paul's imagery of the righteousness of God). Isaiah 52:7 says,
"How lovely on the mountains are the feet of them who bring good news [euangelion in the Greek translation] ... who proclaim salvation, who say to
We see this same connection between the gospel--the salvation of God--and the reign of God in Romans 1:16--"I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation."
The good news is that because God reigns, He is bringing salvation. Mark 1:15 indicates this very well when it says, "The time has been fulfilled and the
In general, Wright is far more right than Piper on this point. The word gospel is never used anywhere in the NT in reference to justification by faith, which is entailed in the gospel but is never what any NT author has primarily in mind when they use the word.
I will say that I'm not sure why Wright is so emphatic on this point (I think I understand why Piper is). Clearly salvation in general is closely related to good news of the reign of God and Christ (more closely than the doctrine of justification). There seems to be a point where we are splitting hairs.
2. The second problem with Piper's argument has to do with the evidence of Paul's attitude toward his past.
I was not surprised to find Piper quoting 1 Timothy 1:15-16, where Paul calls himself the chief of sinners. As I've said before, however, 1 Timothy is quite different in many ways from Paul's earlier writings (view of law, view of singleness and widows, view of women in general, embarrassingly to Piper, Paul never mentions justification by faith). It is methologically problematic in the extreme to use 1 Timothy as the lens through which we read Paul's other writings, since it is in so many respects the "odd man out." And anyone who knows honor-shame cultures (or has been to a testimony meeting recently) knows that recounting one's past sinfulness can actually, in a very strange way, serve as a badge of honor.
The bottom line is that Paul does not talk in his writings as if he had been a despicable sinner before he converted. This is not the tone that slips out of his subconscious throughout his letters. It is hard for Piper and the old guard to kick against these pricks of the new perspective, but on this one the new perspective has it right.
It is a notorious, yet obvious blind spot on the part of pop-interpreters of Philippians to assume that Paul was "leaving behind" and "forgetting" his despicable past in Philippians 3. But that's not what Paul says at all. What he says is "whatever was to my gain, I now consider loss" (3:7). In other words, he speaks of his Pharisee past not in terms of failure and miserable depravity, but of things he might have actually put on a resume.
Krister Stendahl long ago noted how infrequently Paul uses words like repentance and forgiveness. On the contrary, he is constantly telling his churches to imitate his way of living. These are highly strange phenomena if, as Piper wants to be the case, Paul wallowed in a pool of self-deprecation for his past sinfulness before the king.
Undoubtedly some will (tiringly) mention Romans 7, perhaps the passage in Paul most persistently and blatantly read out of context. Given the surrounding context of 7:7-25, Paul simply cannot be talking about his current struggle with sin. Take 6:17:
"Thanks be to God! Although you used to be slaves to sin ... you have been set free from sin."
Does this sound similar to, say, the climax of 7:24-25? "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
Romans 7:7-25 is a dramatic portrayal of a person who wants to obey the law, but is unable to do so because he or she is a slave of sin (7:25b). But you simply can't read the argument in context and conclude Paul is talking about his current experience. Throughout Romans 6-8 he repeatedly speaks of slavery to sin in the past tense, except in this brief passage where he is unfolding what 7:5 looks like:
"When we were in the flesh, the passions of sins [aroused] through the law used to work in our bodies..."
But this is past tense for us now: "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ has set you free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:2)
Once we recognize this fact, there is nothing in the context to indicate that Paul is reminiscing about the "bad old days" either. In Philippians 3:6 Paul says of his Pharisee days that "as far as the righteousness according to law is concerned, I was blameless." Indeed, that's why the Pharisees had so many rules--so that the law could be kept perfectly in concrete terms.
In short, Paul just doesn't care to wallow in the despicability of his past sin. He never does it. Piper simply wouldn't write Paul's letters the way Paul did.
3. The third has to do with the priorities of Paul's gospel.
Justification by faith has been considered the center of Paul's theology by many Protestants since Luther. Of course many voices in the twentieth century pointed out that the doctrine is mostly confined to Romans and Galatians, where Paul is in dialog with the impact of Jewish Christians who did not agree with the way Paul preached the gospel to the Gentiles.
What seems to be the case is that Paul did not spend a lot of time emphasizing justification by faith when he was with Gentiles who were largely unaffected by his debates with Jerusalem and Antioch. The idea is completely tangential in Paul's letters to churches like those at
I think Paul did preach the coming wrath of God to his Gentile audiences. Idolatry and sexual immorality were probably mentioned as some of the main pretexts for their coming judgment. I think it ridiculous, however, to think that Paul preached total depravity of their fallen human nature to them. Maybe Augustine the fourth century Gentile would have.
The solution Paul preached was baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, whom God raised from the dead and appointed cosmic king. You would bow to him before he came or you would bow to him forcibly when he came, your choice. Paul did not, however, seem to emphasize human sinfulness per se in his preaching.
And I think it ridiculous to think he presented some theory of tranfering Christ's righteousness to them. We barely hear Paul say (and in the few places he does it is serendipitous) that Paul believed Jesus to be without sin!
Not promising for a theology that sees Christ's sinlessness as the key datum in atonement and justification!
Chapter 6 Justification and the Gospel: Does Justification Determine Our
Standing with God
In this chapter Piper swings back around to the question of whether justification actually does anything or whether it is simply a declaration. As such, most of the chapter is repetitive of quotes from Wright to which Piper has already taken exception. I've already suggested that when justification is taken as a legal pronouncement, it is both declarative and enacting. So we could simply stop there and call it a chapter.
Well, there are a few new angles Piper explores with us, and since you're paying for this, I should probably write a little more :-)
1. One aspect of justification in Wright that Piper explores a little more in this chapter is his sense that it functions to bring "assurance," although it doesn't do anything.
2. A second aspect is Wright's sense that the "call" of God is what "converts" us. It is, in Piper's words, an "effectual" call rather than a general summons. When we are called, we are in the family of God. For Wright, justification then adds nothing more. It merely declares what the call has done by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This fits with something that Wright says elsewhere that Piper does not discuss in this chapter, namely, Wright's idea that faith is a "badge of covenant membership." Faith does not cause justification for Wright. Rather, faith, like justification, indicates that one has already become a member of the people of God.
I came across this idea in Wright several years ago while Tom Seat (now an MDiv student at
I might add as an aside something I wish I had known when I lived in England, namely, that the Anglican Church signed the Westminster Confession at the Synod of Dordt against the Arminians. In short, the Anglican Church has a Calvinist edge.
In the end, I will reject Wright's understanding both of faith and justification here. Simon Gathercole, as Piper quotes, has rightly pointed out the apparent sense of Romans 5:1--"Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God." In a footnote, Piper notes that Wright's commentary on Romans seems to take this verse in its normal sense, which puzzles Piper, as it does me. This is the problem with writing so much, Wright is an apt target for deconstruction.
I conclude as before, therefore, that Paul speaks of human faith as the trigger for justification in its legal sense of both declaring a person innocent and making it so in the "eyes of the law."
As a footnote to this, I do think Paul can understand the phrase "the faith of Jesus Christ" in relation to Christ's faith and faithfulness, but I see his faith language as a both/and rather than either/or. I might also add that this discussion can quickly be taken in overly individualistic terms. Our goal here, however, is not to lay out Paul's theology systematically but to evaluate the dialog between Piper and Wright on specific points.
Of interest to me in relation to this chapter is Paul's sense of the "call." Piper and Wright seem to substantially agree with each other that the call, for Paul, is an effective call. Paul certainly seems to use this language. In my opinion, however, there is a disconnect between Paul's language of predestination of this sort and the actual process of joining the people of God and how one is to conduct the mission.
In evangelism and conversion, Paul is an Arminian. In language of predestination, he is a Calvinist (although even here I don't think he speaks so much of individuals as of the called, plural). Functionally, predestination language is "after the fact" language. To connect the two sets of language as Augustine and Calvin did is thus to skew Paul one way or the other.
So as far as Piper's argument against Wright's understanding of justification in this chapter, I believe Piper is more correct than Wright here.
Chapter 7 "The Place of Our Works in Justification."
I have found the chapters in Piper's book thus far to be of varying value. A couple I have felt were without merit. On the other hand, a couple have presented good scholarly cases for a dissenting view from Wright. This is one of those chapters. Although I come down on the side of Wright, Piper has made a good case for his interpretation of Romans 2. He loads his gun with the likes of Moo and Schreiner.
I would divide this chapter into two parts. The first deals with the interpretation of Romans 2. The second shows the consistent Reformed expectation that works must follow as a result of justification (though certainly not as a ground or basis for it).
1. Every attempt to create a biblical theology must come to grips with certain passages that, either superficially or substantially, seem to conflict with the final conclusion for which one is arguing. For the Protestant view of justification by faith, Romans 2:5-10 are such verses:
"According to your (sg) hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up for yourself (sg) wrath on the Day of Wrath and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will repay to each person according to his works--
a) on the one hand, to those who seek glory and honor and immortality with the endurance of a good work, eternal life;
b) on the other hand, to those who both disobey the truth out of selfishness and obey unrighteousness, wrath and rage;
b') tribulation and hardship on every living human who does the evil, both Jew first and Greek,
a') and glory and honor and peace to everyone who does the good, both Jew first and Greek.
Piper, following the traditional interpretation, and bolstered by commentators like Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner, argues that before Paul is done, he will argue that no one, Jew or Greek, actually fall into the "a" category--at least not at the point where Paul's argument is in Romans 2.
In the traditional approach to Romans 2, Paul is setting up his argument. There is no impartiality with God. Either Jew or Gentile could in theory be right with God on the basis of their deeds. We will all be judged on the Day according to our works. But when we get to chapter 3, we realize that no one actually can. In that sense, Romans 2 is about the plight of humanity, a humanity that will have to stand before God and give an account--but none of us have a good account to give!
The real crux of the disagreement between Wright and others like Moo and Schreiner comes when we get to Romans 2:13-16:
"For the hearers of the law are not righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified. For whenever Gentiles--those who by nature do not have the law--do the things of the law, these are the law for themselves, although they do not have it, who demonstrate the work of the law written on their hearts, with their conscience at the same time witnessing and either accusing or even excusing between each of their thoughts on the Day when God will judge the hidden things of mortals..."
Wright, among others, takes the Gentiles in question here to be Christians. In other words, they demonstrate the law written on their hearts in the manner of Jeremiah 31--"I will write my laws upon their hearts."
Piper disagrees and makes a cogent argument that these are unbelievers who like Romans 1:20 know the invisible truth of God. Piper notes that "or even excusing" seems to reflect a less than optimistic attitude about their chances at the judgment.
This is a good argument and one that I once accepted. It was the similarity of Romans 2:15 to Jeremiah 31:33 that changed my mind. I note two things about this passage:
a) Any law that Gentiles might keep must, de facto, be some core law rather than the full Jewish law. I say this because a Gentile by definition is uncircumcised and, thus, by definition cannot keep the law. The examples Paul gives are stealing, committing adultery, and idol worship, things Paul certainly expected his Gentile converts not to do.
b) Given that 2:5 refers to Judgment Day, Paul does consider works as a necessary element in the (final) justification equation. If they're not there, judgment ensues. In 2:15, Paul is speaking about Gentiles who will have those works like not stealing and not committing adultery. They will have those works because the law will be written on their hearts. And they will have those works because of the Holy Spirit--an element in the equation that Paul does not mention here but that is clear given things Paul says elsewhere and given the parallel tradition we find in Hebrews.
2. The second concern Piper has in this chapter is to diss something Wright said at a 2003 conference in
He then proceeds to quote the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530), the First Helvetic Confession in
It is of course when one looks at such things that one is reminded that Wesley was just a "hair's breadth from Calvinism." That hair on this subject largely had to do with his optimism with regard to just how many works might follow justification by faith.
Let me step outside the bounds of both Wesley and Calvin (and Luther) to speak for Paul, however, who really didn't get so bent out of shape over these nuances.
Piper is right that the phrase Paul uses in 2:6 is different from when he is contrasting justification by works from justification by faith. 2:6 uses the phrase "according to works" while elsewhere, such as in 3:28, it is "on the basis of works." But wait, let me finish the phrase, "on the basis of works of law." Oh, and let me finish the other phrase too, "faith of Jesus Christ."
Piper will get to these debates later in the book I know, but the phrase "works of law" seems to be more than a reference to mere human effort, the Protestant way of taking the phrase. I'll wait to talk more about these things until Piper gets to them.
Perhaps Piper is right in the sense that it is a slightly different phrase. Perhaps Paul doesn't want his audience to think he is talking about the same thing in Romans 2 that he is in Romans 3. In the end, though, Paul doesn't seem to have a problem with speaking of justification by works in a final sense, given all the caveats of Romans 3 about no one ultimately deserving God's favor.
But given God's favor, indeed given God's empowerment, works are expected at the Judgment. And Paul simply doesn't have a problem in that context of speaking of it not just as co-instrumental. Frankly, in the context of final judgment, works seem to take the prominent role!
This lends support to the view of the new perspective that "works of law" in Romans primarily refers to the more ethnically unique parts of the Jewish law. On the other hand, what Christians have long called the "moral law" (an anachronistic term to be sure) appears to be the criterion by which mortals will be judged on the Day.
Chapter 8 "Does Wright Say with Different Words What the
Reformed Tradition Means?"
I felt in this chapter like I was listening in on someone else's conversation. None of it is particularly new territory, but Piper is addressing an issue of great concern in his circles. To his credit, he is open to the possibility that Wright is saying the same thing that he believes, only with different words. In the end, however, he concludes that Wright is saying something different in at least one key respect.
I thought the following quote from Piper gave the upshot of the distinction between the two:
"... when Wright describes our works in relation to the final judgment as 'the things which show ... that one is in Christ,' he does not mean what most Reformed exegetes have meant when they speak like that.
They mean that the necessary works--the imperfect but real life of love--at the last day show that there has been authentic faith and union with Christ whose atoning death and imputed obedience are the sole ground of acceptance and vindication, apart from any grounding in our Spirit-enabled, imperfect deeds.
Wright, we have seen, does not believe Paul taught such an imputation of Christ's obedience" (127).
Or, to put it even more specifically,
"In historic Reformed exegesis,
(1) a person is in union with Christ by faith alone.
In this union, (2) the believer is identified with Christ in his
(a) wrath-absorbing death,
(b) his perfect obedience to the Father, and
(c) his vindication-securing resurrection.
All of these are reckoned--that is, imputed--to the believer in Christ.
On this basis, (3) the "dead," "righteous," "raised" believer is accepted and assured of final vindication and eternal fellowship with God" (124-125).
The difference between Reformed theology and Wright, Piper claims, is that Wright has no 2b in his system. Wright does not see Paul claiming that Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believer who is in Christ in the way Piper does.
Piper sees three major implications of Wright's missing 2b:
1. The believer's status still stands before God's court without real perfect imputed obedience.
How then can the holy God vindicate them?
2. That leaves only our own Spirit-enabled imperfect obedience as Christians to stand before the holy God, even though our past sins are taken care of.
3. Uncertain about how works play into our future justification creates doubts abou their role in our present justification.
Here Piper quotes Wright: "What is 'justification by faith' all about? Paul's answer is that it is the anticipation, in the present time, of the verdict which will be issued on the last day" (129).
Piper's argument is that
a). if present justification is by faith (as Wright seems to affirm) and
b). present justification is an anticipation of future justification,
c). how can Wright say that future justification is by works?
I would agree that Wright's words are often difficult to pin down (he reminds me of Barth, although I think Barth's ambiguity is more coherent than Wright's). Let me here fully confess that someone could have a hey day with my comments too if they started pulling contradictory sounding sentences from the many words I've put on this blog.
I think, however, that some of the ambiguity here is not Wright's fault and some of Piper's clarity is not to the Reformed tradition's merit. Rather, Paul himself leaves us with many statements that sound to be in tension with each other. Just as an example:
"We reckon that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law." (Rom. 3:28)
"It is necessary for all of us to appear before the judgment seat of the Messiah so that each might be paid back for the things that they did with their body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).
In short, the charge of alleged discrepency between present and future justification must lay first at Paul's door before one puts it on Wright, who in his ambiguity is a fair reflection of Paul's own ambiguity.
Here I have some thoughts:
1. Perhaps God has inspired the Reformed (or Wesleyan) tradition to hear the right meanings in and connections between Paul's words on this topic. But it is important to recognize that the text of Paul himself on this topic has what Paul Ricoeur called a "surplus of meaning." There is more than one way to account for what, at least at first glance, are comments that appear to be in tension.
These are "gaps" in the text (cf. Wolfgang Iser) which can be filled in coherently, as the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions have. But for me it is also important to recognize that we are the ones filling in these gaps. Piper is deluding himself if he thinks his interpretation of imputed righteousness comes from Paul himself. It comes from Christian tradition filling in gaps in Paul's writings.
This is not a bad thing--it is in fact a necessary thing.
2. My sense in Paul is that he speaks broadly and generally. The Protestant Reformation, along with Augustine, have polarized Paul's language by making it more either-or in ways he didn't.
a. predestination versus free will (Augustine, Calvin, and Wesley have filled in the philosophical gaps that sat loosely for Paul)
b. human depravity versus goodness (The Pelagian controversy polarized this issue in ways it wasn't fully polarized for Paul)
c. faith versus works
Paul simply never uses the phrase "justification by faith alone." Paul never says that we are purely justified by faith, understood not to involve works at all. Wright is correct over Piper that for Paul faith involves human action (versus Piper on 130-131). Paul does not worry about whether this faith is a "work" itself done by human effort--these are much later debates.
We are justified by faith now--by trusting in what God has done by raising Jesus from the dead. We will be justified by faithfulness then--with the atonement of Christ in place for past sins, how we went on to live in the Spirit. Paul doesn't work out the details.
Once again, we can discern that the primary fly in Piper's ointment is his undertanding of penal substitution in relation to God's holiness. Christ has to take the last drop of our punishment and, conversely, we have to have the last drop of Christ's righteousness.
Meanwhile, Paul doesn't care. Jesus dying for our sins is not a mathematical equation to satisfy a wrath-number crunching God. Nor is God a righteous-number crunching God. He's God. He is sovereign enough to forgive for free if He had wanted to. The image of penal substitution is just one of several true pictures of atonement.
But to make it a fully literal understanding of God--just as to make predestination fully literal or depravity--is to skew Paul with other bad theological consequences.
Chapter 9 "Paul's Structural Continuity with Second
In this chapter, Piper presents--but largely does not evaluate--Wright's understanding of the phrase "works of law." To a large extent, Piper in this chapter is presenting some of the key distinctives of the so called "new perspective on Paul." In particular, he is evaluating an article Wright wrote comparing Paul with one of the
I have already mentioned this issue. Key here is the fact that Paul largely does not contrast faith with works in the abstract, as Luther and the Protestant Reformation did, indeed, as Augustine did. The phrase that Paul primarily uses is "works of law."
Thus Romans 3:28--"So we reckon that a person is justified by faith and not by works of law."
The law in question is certainly the Jewish law. For me, a crucial issue is whether Paul here primarily pictures the "core law" that I have argued he has in mind in Romans 2 or the fuller Jewish law with special reference to the particulars that distinguished Jew from Gentile (circumcision, sabbath observance, food laws). Certainly in Romans 2 he must have something like a core law in mind, since Gentiles do the things in the law--something they by definition cannot do if Paul has things like circumcision in mind.
Wright's argument is, first of all, an argument about Judaism. Following the "new perspective," Wright does not believe that Judaism at the time of Paul was a religion of legalism where you tried to earn God's favor. Rather,
1. God graciously brought
3. Final justification would come on the basis of an entire life lived.
With this last point we should emphasize that Wright and Piper are talking about the Second Temple Period (516BC-AD70). The OT in context has little sense that history is headed toward some sort of culmination.
So Wright has 6 points in relation to 4QMMT, the key text of which reads,
"We have written to you some of the works of the law... You will rejoice at the end time when you find the essence of our words to be true. And it will be reckoned to you as righteousness."
Here are Wright's points"
1. "Works of the law" here are in a covenantal and eschatological context.
2. The works in question function as "boundary markers" of God's people now anticipating the end time.
3. Paul replaced "works of law" in this scheme with "faith."
4. Both Paul and this document are talking about community definition.
5. Paul's ethics though functions differently than "works" do here.
6. This document is not Pharisee, so we can't assume Paul's Galatian opponents had this understanding of the structure of justification.
So Wright believes that Paul's understanding of justification has a similar structure to that of this Jewish background, only with faith taking the place of works of law.
So for the Teacher of Righteousness, the alleged author of MMT, 1) God's promise led to the 2) establishment of the community of
For Paul, according to Wright, 1) God's promise led to the 2) establishment of the community in Christ as fulfilled
I'll confess before we get to the next chapter that I think Wright has seriously overread the parallel and is overloading Paul's words with mega-extraneous meaning.
Chapter 10 "The Implications for Justification of the
Single Self-Righteous Root of 'Ethnic Badges' and 'Self-Help Moralism'"
This is one of Piper's longer chapters. In it Piper takes on several elements of the so called new perspective on Paul.
I continue to try to put my finger on why I don't really like the way Tom Wright goes about doing exegesis a lot of the time--even when I agree with him. I think I'm getting close. My sense is that he overloads passages with meaning because of his "system."
There's a great rule for reading texts in context--don't see more meaning in a text than is necessary for it to make sense. By contrast, Wright is in many respects as much a theologian when he interprets as a straight exegete (we are of course all theologians in our hermeneutic and application). In his own way Piper has pointed this fact out (he does it far more than even Wright of course). Wright reads the text from within a system he created back in his doctoral days. He has only elaborated it in dialog with specific passages and history ever since.
In that sense I view Jimmy Dunn as a better exegetical model of the original meaning than Wright is, which is why I wanted to study under him. Dunn sticks to the text wherever it leads--at least as much as any of us can--and has little time for the special pleading that is increasingly the name of the game in the biblical studies guild.
Certainly the ideological critics have conquered the text in the name of postmodernism and made it say whatever their ideology wanted it too. Yet postmodernism has also afforded conservatives an opportunity to slough off legitimate questions raised by modernist biblical scholarship. Others have turned to Gadamer as a way of interpreting within Christian tradition without regard for the original intent--a clever dodge but still a dodge.
My scheme has been to 1) let the text say what it said, no matter how painful, and 2) work out any problems when we move to theology. At times I let faith in my tradition trump reason's evidence, but I do this with full disclosure to myself. I realize this process has a tinge of the catholic to it, but I believe this is the way forward, a la Mark Noll and others. I think Christianity is ready for a synthesis that finally lets the Reformation reach equilibrium with the church catholic.
1. "mercy, not sacrifice"
This is not a major part of the chapter, but I wanted to put the funniest thing in this chapter first so it doesn't get buried in minutia.
I couldn't believe that Piper quoted this verse in the way he does, when Jesus tells the Pharisees of Matthew 23 to go learn what the Scripture means when it says, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." For Piper, this is Jesus' "basic statement about the hermeneutic that guided the Pharisees' pursuit of Torah" (157). More on Piper's skewed, even if traditional understanding of the Pharisees below...
What was so funny was the way he turned this into an implied critique of the fact that the Pharisees didn't see their total depravity and, thus, their need for God's unconditional election. He doesn't put it this way, of course, but it stands behind what he does say: "They say that they are depending on God's grace. But Jesus said they are not" (157).
HA! The context is an indictment of Pharisees who pay attention to small details of the law and then miss the weightier ones--"justice, mercy, and faithfulness" (Matt. 23:23). In other words, Jesus critiques them because they don't show the right works!!! This passage has nothing to do at all with their absolute reliance on God's mercy. It's about the need for them to show mercy and thus to act righteously.
Frankly, Matthew and James are two NT texts Piper's theology should stay away from for their own health.
As an aside, I had a graduate student once who strongly objected to my translation of Matthew 6:1 as "do righteousness." His reasoning was that it is impossible for us truly to "do righteousness." I was at somewhat of a loss as to what to say to him. Sorry, that's what the Greek words say.
2. the phrase "works of law"
The New Perspective
As we have seen, Wright views the phrase "works of law" as a reference to "an ethnic badge worn to show that a person is in the covenant rather than deeds done to show that they deserve God's favor" (Piper, 145-46). In other words, Paul is addressing ethnic boasting rather than "self-help moralism."
By "self-help moralism," Wright means the attempt to earn God's favor by way of a person's good deeds and accomplishment of the law. In other words, following Sanders, Wright does not believe that Judaism in general at the time was "legalistic" but that Jews kept the law in gratitude to God for his grace.
Once again, I find Wright's way of describing his position less than communicative. As he does not see faith or justification as things that make a person right with God, he insists that "works of law" were badges of covenant membership for mainstream Judaism just as faith becomes for Christians. They show that a person is in but do not bring a person in.
I find Dunn's presentation of this new perspective on works of law much more helpful. Like Wright, he thinks that by "works of law," Paul is primarily thinking of boundary issues like circumcision, food laws, and sabbath observance--those aspects of the law that most set off Jew from Gentile.
However, Dunn has made it clear in an introduction to a recent collection of essays, The New Perspective on Paul, that he would not limit the referent of the phrase "works of law" to these items. They are simply the primary content Paul has in mind.
Both Dunn and Wright adduce the train of thought in Romans 3:27-30 in favor of the idea that Paul is attacking a kind of "ethnocentrism" on the part of the Jews, who see the fact that Gentiles do not perform "works of law" as an indication of the superior standing of the Jews in God's eyes.
"Where therefore is boasting?
"It has been excluded?
"By what law? The law of works?
"No, but through the law of faith. For we reckon that a person is justified by faith irrespective of works of law. Or is God [the God] of the Jews only? Is he not also [God] of the Gentiles?
"Yes, he is also [God] of the Gentiles, since God [is] one who will justify the circumcision on the basis of faith and the uncircumcision through faith."
Piper didn't finish out the train of thought. He omits the final verse of the passage: Therefore, do we nullify law through faith? Certainly not! But we establish law.
Dunn and Wright's understand Paul's train of thought like this:
a. A person is justified by faith apart from works of law.
b. Otherwise, no Gentile could ever be justified.
c. And that can't be so because God is the God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
d. Thus, "works of law" must be acts of law-keeping that distinguish Jew from Gentile and
e. Thus, the Jews saw works of law as indications of God's sole approval of them and rejection of the Gentiles. The inappropriate boasting here is thus boasting in Jewishness as a path to justification and the de facto exclusion of the Gentiles thereby.
This argument makes a good deal of sense, although I get uncomfortable when such an anachronistic term like "ethnocentrism" gets introduced into the equation.
Piper argues in reverse. The way in which God is one God is the fact that He does not show partiality (as in Romans 2). "God is not a tribal deity" (147). This shows why, moving back to vs. 28, justification is by faith and not by works. "The focus in the argument is not mainly on 'works of law' but on faith as the universally accessible and universally humbling way of justification" (147).
This is a dubious way to go about exegesis, especially if you don't play it back forward after you have rewound from the end. A train of thought runs forward, not backward.
I conclude with Dunn's somewhat nuanced understanding of this phrase. Certainly from the standpoint of the words themselves, the phrase "works of law" would seem to refer to performance of the law. And what law is Paul most likely to have in mind? Why the Jewish law, of course. Wright is correct to see Jewish particularism as an element in the train of thought--Gentiles obviously don't tend to keep the law in question.
I find the background of 4QMMT potentially helpful too. If in fact this document reflects intra-Jewish arguments over the particulars of matters like purity and such, then the phrase might immediately bring to mind these sorts of issues--issues that were very particular to Judaism and the most ethnically unique aspects of the Jewish law. This is true even if the phrase itself potentially had broader connotations.
Indeed, if the word "Essene" is actually related to the verb אשה, "to do," it is possible that the idea of "doing" the law would have immediately brought this whole set of issues to mind--the kinds of issues that Essenes worried about.
The upshot of all this is that Paul targeted not so much "faith versus works" in the abstract, (although this issue is raised by Paul's argument, much as individual predestination is tangential but raised by Paul's corporate argument in Romans 9-11). What Paul specifically had in mind was faith versus works of a law that was the particular possession of
This of course has the effect of limiting salvation to the Jews, and it does steer the question of boasting toward Jewish boasting in the (Jewish) law as an indication that they are superior.
3. Was Judaism legalistic?
A significant portion of the chapter also takes on the new perspective's presentation of Judaism as a religion of grace rather than legalism. I have already mentioned a particularly ironic element in Piper's argument above in #1.
Now I would agree that Sanders' description of Palestinian Judaism is a bit simplistic, "canned," if you would. And Wright's sense of law keeping as gratitude to God for His grace is even more myopic. There were all sorts of Jews with all sorts of perspectives, even on the law. I will begrudgingly conceed that a phrase from the title of
But the "new perspective" is far more correct than the "old perspective" that saw Judaism as a religion of works righteousness and Paul as opposing this head on. Piper is right that works were in the mix of God's favor for Judaism. But they were in the mix of God's favor for Paul too. The pure abstraction of absolute faith (created by God and thus not a work) versus any work at all is not Paul. Further, the intertestamental texts often do emphasize God's grace. John Piper could have written half the Thanksgiving Hymns from
As we mentioned under #1, Piper draws on Jesus' words against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 to base his understanding of Judaism. Here is a good statement of Piper's general perspective: "No doubt there were such grace-dependent, gratitude-driven Jewish people, but it is doubtful that Paul and the Pharisees whom Jesus knew and Paul's opponents in
In a way, I agree with Piper. I agree that the Jews didn't have his standard of "grace-dependence." Yet I disagree in that many Jews were sufficiently grace dependent to be acceptable to God. And the same applies to Paul--he didn't have Piper's standard of "grace-dependence," yet he was sufficiently grace-dependent to be acceptable to God.
Would Piper agree, however, that there were Pharisees who were sufficiently grace-dependent to be acceptable to God? In a footnote, Piper acknowledges that we are reading Matthew's presentation of the Pharisees and that there might, in theory, be a Matthean perspective in play. He dismisses such speculation: "If I have to choose which testimony to believe about the nature of the Pharisees, I choose to believe the testimony of the early Christians, not the reconstruction of twenty-first century scholars whose biases are no less dangerous than those of early Christians" (155 n.18).
He is perhaps alluding to Sanders' claim that Pharisees were a Judean phenomenon and that it is not likely that Jesus ever substantially came into contact with them.
I protest, however, to Piper's reference to "the testimony of the early Christians." Here he pretty much means the testimony of Matthew. When we listen to the perspectives of each of the gospel writers, Matthew is clearly the harshest toward the Pharisees. Piper could never make his claims from Luke-Acts or John. Jesus has Pharisee supporters in John (e.g., Nicodemus). And Acts seems to consider the Pharisees who have believed to be "in" (Acts 15:5). Indeed, Acts 21:20 seems to indicate that the vast majority of believers in
We cannot 1) equate Pharisees with all Jews or 2) deny that Matthew's presentation tends toward one extreme and is not the whole picture even of "the testimony of the early Christians."
With regard to Paul, I might note again that Piper turns to Ephesians and 1 Timothy with respect to Paul's view toward his pre-Christian self. We can affirm by faith that Paul wrote these writings. But that does not allow us to deny the significant differences between them and Paul's earlier writings. You cannot start a theology of Paul from 1 Timothy or you will end up skewing all his earlier stuff.
Similarly, I was flabergasted to see that John McRay used Ephesians as the template for his presentation of the life and teachings of Paul. Ephesians is close to Paul's earlier writings, but it is different enough that it should be treated as a variation rather than the norm.
Take the following two statements:
"Therefore, since we have been justified on the basis of faith, we have peace with God ... Therefore, how much more since we have been justified by his blood, we will be saved through him from wrath" (Rom. 5:1, 9), and "a person is justified on the basis of faith irrespective of works of law (3:28).
"For by grace you have been saved through faith... not on the basis of works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8).
Note 1) that Ephesians no longer uses the language of justification. Meanwhile, 2) while salvation is future tense in Romans, it is now past tense in Ephesians. Further 3) works of law no longer is enmeshed in a discussion of Jews and Gentiles but has become the more abstract discussion that we know so well from Augustine to the present.
Again, the Devil is in the details. This is why Dunn is a better Bible interpreter than Piper. Piper runs rough shod over important distinctions and poo-poo's them in the name of some alleged "higher view of Scripture" that in practice is far more apt to rape the biblical text.
4. A futile distinction?
Finally, Piper spends a good deal of time arguing that there is ultimately no distinction between Wright's "racial boast" and "successful moralism." Both, according to Piper, amount to self-righteousness: "ethnocentrism and legalism have the same root" (157).
If one believes, as Piper does, that grace precludes merit to any human action at all, then he is correct. However, the Bible does not know such an absolute distinction.
Grace is a concept of ancient patronage. It was an informal relationship in which a "have" helped out a "have not" disproportionate to anything the recipient might give in return. But it was not absolute. Certainly a "client" might seek out a patron. Certainly such "gifts" often came with expectations in return and, in that sense, were not completely unconditional.
Now we must let the NT itself tell us the degree to which it might modify this socio-cultural background. Just because it happened this way in the Meditteranean world doesn't mean that it operates that way in the NT.
But the texts of the NT fit remarkably well against this background, which was current to the NT. Certainly God calls and elects in one set of texts. But then "whosoever" solicits God's favor in faith. And there are definitely expectations that God has in return for His grace. No one can give enough to merit His grace, but He expects us to give.
Piper's distinctions are thus post-NT. Faith is the sine qua non of justification. No amount of works add up to justification. And certainly, works of the Jewish law do not add up to justification. God will justify the Gentiles through their faith but He will justify the Jews also because of their faith, not because they have kept the Jewish law.
But in the final analysis, at the final judgment, appropriate "works" are also a sine qua non for final justification. We can do our "after the fact" rankling in theology class about whether the works are a result of justification rather than a pre-requisite for it. But these are our arguments, not Paul's.
Chapter 11 "That in Him We Might Become the Righteousness of God."
words, Piper is going to address Tom Wright's interpretation of 2 Corinthians
5:21 in this chapter:
1. 2 Corinthians 5:21
"The one who had not known sin, [God] made [to become] sin for us, so that we ourselves might become the righteousness of God in him."
This verse is potentially a great test case in the pre-understanding that we all bring to texts. My reaction to Wright's interpretation was pretty much the same as Piper's when I first came across it. Isn't the meaning of this verse obvious?
Christ goes from righteous to sinful (putatively).
We go from sinful to righteous (putatively).
Morna Hooker wrote a famous article in New Testament Studies called "Interchange in Christ" on this verse.
But Wright argues the following in What Saint Paul Really Said. The phrase "the righteousness of God" is a phrase with a history. Any Jew that heard it would immediately have thought of God's faithfulness to His covenant with
Christ atones for our sin as a sin offering...
which demonstrates God's righteousness, His faithfulness to redeem Israel...
where Christ is understood to be the embodiment of Israel...
and believers are all in Christ.
Now I would agree that "covenant faithfulness" probably is not the most apt description of the righteousness of God here (as I mentioned in an earlier post). I noted that in Paul: A Fresh Perspective Wright uses the phrase "covenant justice," which is no doubt ambiguous but better in some respects.
But I eventually came around to agree largely with Wright, minus his more idiosyncratic points. I take the train of thought to be:
Christ atones for our sin as a sin offering...
which demonstrates God's righteousness,
which is not only his justice but also His propensity to redeem and save not only
I agree with two out of Wright's three arguments for this interpretation of the phrase "the righteousness of God" here (set out by Piper on p. 175):
a. Wright holds that the phrase "the righteousness of God" is a technical term meaning "covenant faithfulness."
I agree with this statement with the tweak I mention above. I already have presented the argument that this phrase had a known definition in Paul's day in my review of chapter 3.
I might say that I am open to the possibility that Paul intended some sort of a double entendre here and in Romans. Since I think there was a default dictionary entry for this phrase in Paul's dictionary, I come out with Wright as far as the primary meaning of the phrase.
But it is certainly conceivable, given that human righteousness is also a major feature of Paul's argument, that Paul meant the reader to see a double entendre somewhat along traditional lines.
By the way, one critique of Piper's position--that this verse is about the imputation of Christ's righteousness, a balanced exchange--is that the verse does not speak of the righteousness of Christ. It does not say, God made Christ who had not sinned to be sinful so that we might take on the righteousness of Christ. Rather, God offers Christ as a sin offering (cf. Rom. 3:25) so that we might become God's righteousness. You see how Piper has not seen the correlation correctly.
Piper rightly questions the role of the phrase "in him" then--"so that we might become the righteousness of God in him." May I not chastise Piper too much for his read of this verse for it is compact, poetic, and very ambiguous from where we sit today. I believe, however, that if we will look at this clause grammatically, we will see what Paul is saying:
The heart of the clause, subject and verb is "we might become."
"The righteousness of God" is a predicate nominative with a modifying word.
Now, "in him" is a prepositional phrase that is functioning adverbially, that is, it tells us something about the verb "might become." It does not modify "righteousness"--we do not become the righteousness in him. Rather in him we become the righteousness of God.
In other words, Paul is telling us where we come to demonstrate the righteousness of God, namely, when we are "in Christ."
After I have said that about 2 Corinthians 5:21, there are other verses that do seem to imply that it is the fact that I am "in Christ" that I can be justified. It is not a "real transference of righteousness" in the manner of Piper's understanding of imputation, but it is a putative reckoning of me as righteous in Christ.
Let me hold off on such verses for a few moments.
b. A second argument Wright offers for his understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that this understanding fits the train of thought in 2 Corinthians 5.
This fact pushed me over to Wright's side. If we think back to Romans 1:16-17 where Paul uses the phrase righteousness of God, there Paul says that "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God leading to salvation for everyone who has faith... For in it the righteousness of God is revealed..."
In other words, the aspect of God's righteousness that Paul highlights the most in Romans is His propensity to save not only His people but in fact all humanity. Now, what is 2 Corinthians 5 about:
"That God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting [humanity's] transgressions to them and having placed the message of reconciliation among us" (2 Cor. 5:19).
Then I came to agree with Wright. This passage really is about God's righteousness as it is properly understood against the backdrop of Isaiah and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
c. Wright's third point is that if 5:21 is about humans becoming righteous, then the idea just pops up out of nowhere. Here I think Piper is right to suggest that the idea is not foreign to the train of thought (e.g., 5:15). In fact, I have already mentioned that I am open to overtones of these ideas latent in the verse, even if it is not the primary sense.
2. Romans 5:18-19 and Galatians 2:20
I mentioned above that there are other verses that do indicate that we are considered righteous because we are "in Christ" and in his "faithfulness" in particular. This is slightly different than Piper's argument, for a real and absolute transfer of Christ's righteousness is essential to his system.
But he does correctly produce Scriptures that support the idea that we are incorporated into Christ's faithfulness and obedience.
He mentions Romans 5:18-19, for example:
Therefore then, as through the one transgression all came under condemnation, so also through the one righteous act all come to justification and life. For just as through the disobedience of one person many were designated sinners, so also through the obedience of one [person] many will be designated righteous.
To open up another can of worms, 5:19 here is so similar to Richard Hays understanding of Romans 3:22 that it was a major factor in my finally accepting his understanding of "the faith of Christ" in that verse:
"even God's righteousness [demonstrated] through the faithfulness of Jesus Messiah toward all who have faith."
Notice the parallel:
5:19--Jesus' obedience leads to many being pronounced righteous.
3:22--Jesus' faithfulness leads to believers being justified (=pronounced righteous).
A better verse, and of course one Piper would not agree supports his own general trajectory for obvious reasons, is Galatians 2:20 in Haysian translation:
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me. And what I now live in flesh, I live in the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me."
3. Philippians 3:9
I will close this review with a brief consideration of Philippians 3:9. This verse is somewhat ambiguous on its own:
"...so that I might gain Christ and be found in him, not having my own righteousness based on the law but [a righteousness] through the faith of Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith."
Let me give it my interpretive understanding:
...not having my own righteousness based on keeping the Jewish law but a righteousness that has come through the faithfulness of Christ, a righteousness God has declared based on my faith.
As I interpret it--and I recognize that it is ambiguous and that Paul might simply be saying the same thing twice--there is first a reference to Christ's faith and then one to Paul's:
my righteousness through faith of Christ
my righteousness from God through my faith
Yes indeed, this righteousness I have is really Christ's righteousness, a righteousness that is reckoned to me because I am in Christ.
While I disagree with Piper on many of his specific interpretations here, I'm not sure I am that far from him on the question of Christ's righteousness counting as my own. I think the main difference is that he is very concerned to see this as a real and total transfer.
I'm not 100% sure I even know what a real transfer means. What I think it means for Piper is that God must have absolute, mathematical justice and cannot accept us without total mathematical righteousness. So Christ must take every drop of punishment we should have and we must have every drop of his perfect righteousness.
This is where the difference is. Piper is driven by theological concerns of which Paul knows nothing.