Monday, December 10, 2007

Review 7: Piper's Future of Justification Chapter 5

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 Zion, 'Your God reigns.'"

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 kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the gospel." The good news here is about the arrival of the kingdom of God, the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. This is how Jesus speaks of the good news here, not in reference to the fact that God is letting us repent. Piper's theology, once again, is out of focus and skewed in its excessive focus on human depravity.

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 Corinth or Thessalonica. He does introduce the topic at Philippi in fear that the "dogs" will pull a Galatians there. Ironically, I suspect he did not emphasize it much to his Jewish brothers and sisters when the Gentile question was not under discussion.

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 in a couple days, d.v...

1 comment:

James Gibson said...

As one of my Lutheran friends once said, "Calvinism is what happens when lawyers do theology."