Friday, December 07, 2007

Friday Review: Piper's Future of Justification 5

Today we summarize/evaluate chapter 3 of John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright: "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"

--follows 1:17--

"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 Israel. I personally think to call it "covenant faithfulness" also involves one-sidedness. But Paul does process God's righteousness through Israel--Paul is not thinking in purely universal terms, as Ernst Käsemann argued. God is righteous in relation to Israel, and the Gentiles can be a part of God's saving righteousness in relation to Israel.

More tomorrow on chapter 4...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Within his courteous treatment of Wright, Piper used these words and others to describe Wright’s treatment of the gospel and justification - “disfigured,” “distorted,” and “blurred.” Just how disfigured, distorted and blurred does teaching on the gospel have to become before Galatians 1:8-9 applies? I would like to know where Piper and others would draw the line.

Happy New Year!