Thursday, December 20, 2007

Review 12 of Piper's Future of Justification, Chapter 10

Sorry I've been off for a few days.

Today we look at chapter 10 of John Piper's book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright:

"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 Israel.

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 Carson's work, "variegated nomism," is more appropriate than Sanders' term, "covenantal nomism." The Devil is in the details, and grand, all encompassing typologies--this group is this way, that group is that way--are almost always wrong from the start. In real life people are complex and don't usually reduce to simplistic categories. This is, again, why I prefer Dunn to Wright.

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 Qumran.

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 Galatia were among them."

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 Jerusalem leaned in this direction. Further, Paul identifies himself as a Pharisee in the present tense before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23:6.

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.


Keith Drury said...

Thank you ken for your ongoing conversation with Wright, Dunn, Sanders and Piper on all this…

I have not been posting comments but like hundreds of others every day I am reading and learning and thinking… thanks for the help in that…

Danny said...

I have been reading Romans over the Christmas Break. The first time I read it all the way through was last year, and it spoke very specifically to the context I was in then (I was going through a painful transition period), but I have read it all the way through again a couple of days ago and I began seeing things I never saw when I only read the one or two verses that my Baptist minister quoted when I was little.

I have only read a little bit of Sanders, I have read "The Challenge of Jesus" by Wright, and Piper spoke at our school once last year. I am not familiar, however, with Dunn. Could you refer me to the work you are referring to? I am having a lot of trouble deciphering through Paul's writing in Romans, but your post here has really helped.


Ken Schenck said...

Danny, as far as I remember, Dunn hasn't written a popular overview of Paul in a small volume like Wright, who's written two!

He has written a larger volume, The Theology of Paul the Apostle and I mentioned the cost prohibitive Mohr/Siebeck collection of his essays that came out a couple years ago--The New Perspective on Paul.

In my opinion, the best way in (and unfortunately its not written for the person in the pew) is to buy the collection of essays in his book Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians put out by Westminster John Knox. It contains the famous article where he defined the movement as the "new perspective."

One of Dunn's legacy is the popularizing of names for movements. Even if Wright coined the phrase "third quest for the historical Jesus," Dunn's the one who made it stick.

Danny said...

Thanks Ken. I'm in my fourth year at Azusa Pacific University, and I've read a lot of heavy stuff from commentators. I think I might be able to handle the book you are talking about. We'll see. Thanks for the recommendations.

Ken Schenck said...

Excellent! I have several friends at APU--Keith Reeves, B. J. Oropeza, David Wright. B. J. actually studied under Dunn at the same time I did, so he would be a great resource!

Danny said...

Yeah! I had dinner at Dr. Wright's house at the beginning of the semester. He seemed like a really nice guy.

Anonymous said...


this might be a helpful sampling of Dunn's work.

Danny said...

Thanks for taking the time to find that for me.