Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Piper on Wright and the New Perspective

I just finished John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. Wright's new book Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision is a response to this book, so I thought I would read Piper's book before getting in to Wright's.

I love N.T. Wright. He's a great thinker and a brilliant communicator. That being said, I don't buy into all of his ideas on Paul. I am more along the James Dunn line of thought with a little Seyoon Kim and Francis Watson thrown in for good measure. (If you don't know who these guys are, Wright and Dunn are the leading proponents of the "New Perspective on Paul.")

Since a criticism against Wright is a criticism of the New Perspective, I felt the need to offer some thoughts. However, instead of blasting Piper for what was not good, I thought it might be more helpful to discuss the strongest points of his book. Piper brings up three points that make me think. First, there is his discussion on what makes the Gospel "good news." Really, this boils down to the importance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Second, there is his discussion of the role of "good works" in salvation. Third (and most significant), is the question of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer.

First, there is the issue of what makes the Gospel "good news." Wright argues that the Gospel isn't substitutionary atonement and going to heaven when you die; it's the message that God is making all things to right through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Wright does not deny substitutionary atonement; he just says it's not the Gospel.

Piper cites 1 Corinthians 15:1–9:
Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you--unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received--that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. [bold and italics mine]
The issue here is the meaning and significance of the word "for" in verse 3 is. Piper argues that the Gospel is only "good news" if it is "good news" for me. In other words, until I realize that there is nothing I can do to save myself and that I am a hopeless sinner destined for damnation, I can't be saved. Thus, an essential part of the Gospel is the theology of substitutionary atonement.

To understand the Gospel, do you just have to affirm that Jesus died for sins and rose again, or do you have to understand the theology of substitutionary atonement that lies behind that word "for"? In other words, if someone believes in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but does not completely understand grace (i.e. they think that their works are of some benefit to their salvation), are they saved? Or does their lack of understanding of grace disqualify them from the kingdom of God?

Second, Piper discusses the role that works play in salvation. One serious weakness of the Reformed tradition is that in emphasizing the antithesis between "faith" and "good works," they fail to explain the plethora of passages in which Paul praises good works and presents them as normative to the Christian life.

Wright says that future justification is based on the Spirit-enabled good works that the believer does in this life. The major support for this is Romans 8:13, "(for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live" and Romans 2:13, "For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous." In other words, when someone believes the Gospel, they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit by grace through faith. The work of the Holy Spirit necessarily leads to good works which lead to justification. So:

Faith=>Spirit/justification=>works=>future justification (based on Spirit-enabled works)

Piper, on the other hand, argues that future justification is based on the works of Christ imputed to the believer. However, Piper also argues that good works are normative for the believer, even going so far as to call them "necessary evidence." So:

Faith=>Spirit/justification=>works and future justification (based on imputed works)

Is there a meaningful difference between these two models? Both agree that salvation is by grace through faith. Both believe that justification is both now and future. Both agree that works are necessary. The difference is that Wright says that works are a necessary part of justification and Piper says that they are a necessary evidence. If the evidence is "necessary," how is it not a "part"?

Third, Piper discusses Wright's view on imputation and union with Christ. I really appreciated the chapters on this issue because Piper clearly differentiated Wright's views from the Reformed position. As much as Wright wants to claim that he is in line with the Reformed tradition, when it comes to imputation, he is not.

Imputation is the idea that when we are united to Christ through faith/baptism (Rom 6), Christ's righteous works are imputed to us through this union. So, it's not just that we are forgiven of our sins, but we are also given a stockpile of righteous deeds that Christ did on earth. He takes our sin; we get his righteousness. The classic proof-text for this is 2 Corinthians 5:21, "God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God."

Wright, on the other hand, says that 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not teach the Reformed doctrine of imputation and that the idea that righteousness is a substance that can be passed from one person to another is a category mistake. You don't possess righteousness, you are righteous. Wright says that justification is based on real righteousness that comes about by the work of the Spirit. He offers an alternate view of 2 Corinthians 5:21 that (in his opinion) does more justice to the "ambassadors" theme of the context. In my opinion, Wright's interpretation of this passage is a little weak.

However, if I could help Wright here, I might point out that 2 Cor 5:21 says nothing of the means by which people become the righteousness of God. The word "imputation" is nowhere in the verse. Does 2 Cor 5:21 demand imputation, or can Wright's view be fit into it?


Nick said...

Interesting post!

What always fascinates me about the New Perspective is that it is virtually Catholicism rediscovered by Protestants. What Wright and others "discovered" has been Catholic dogma affirmed at the Reformation against the Reformers.

What people like Piper rightly recognize is that Wright's definitions of things contradict Sola Fide as taught by the Reformers.

Anyway, as far as 2 Cor 5:21 goes, I consider it the most abused passage in Scripture. Too much weight is given it, and too much is read into it (esp "made sin"). The claim is that this passage is the epitome of "double imputation," yet as you said the term "impute" doesn't even appear.

One thing you said jumped out at me:
"So, it's not just that we are forgiven of our sins, but we are also given a stockpile of righteous deeds that Christ did on earth. He takes our sin; we get his righteousness."

The "righteousness of God" is properly the "righteousness of God the Father," and God owns this by virtue of being God. He never "earned" this status by doing good works. This righteousness also belongs to Christ by extension, but the main problem remains: This is NOT a status earned, it belongs to God in virtue of His Divine Nature. Given this, it makes no sense to say this righteousness is the status imputed due to keeping the Law perfectly. And thus it has nothing to do with Christ's "active obedience," not to mention the Scripture never says Christ kept the Law in our place. Christ possesses the "righteousness of God" not because of the righteous acts He did on earth.

Matt said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Nick.

Wright's ideas about justification do have some similarities with the Roman Catholic view. They both differ from the Reformed view in that they don't define "faith" as "believing as opposed to doing."

Although, if I am not mistaken, the RCC emphasizes justification through union with Christ via the Eucharist, whereas Wright would emphasize justification through Spirit-enabled righteous deeds. (Am I wrong about the RCC view?)

I have a question about the "righteousness of God." I don't understand how God "owns" his righteousness. It seems to me that righteousness is a character quality, not something to be possessed. I also don't see how it can be distinguished from his actions. How can I say I am loving unless I love people? How can I say I am honest unless I tell the truth? In the same way, how can God be righteous if he doesn't act righteously?

Nick said...

I would say you are wrong about the RCC not being focused on Spirit enabled righteous deeds, Wright actually stole that from us Catholics.

God "owns" His righteousness in that it is a quality of His Nature, just like His goodness or any other quality. It is not distinguished from His actions in the sense that His actions wont be an outworking, what I was getting at is that it cannot be the other way around: righteous "outward" deeds leading to an "inward" righteousness.

Douglas Bilodeau said...

It seems to me there is possibly a strong distinction between grace leading to works leading to salvation on the one hand, and grace, evidenced by works, leading to salvation. The former implies that the works we do under grace are sufficient to merit salvation. The second allows that, though our works, even under grace, can never in themselves be sufficient to merit salvation, our salvation is directly assured by grace. That seems like a big difference.

Nick said...

Doug, you are very correct on that point.

Matt said...


Thanks for the comment.

Wright does not say that works merit salvation.

He also distinguishes between justification and salvation. Salvation is the whole of which justification is a part. (The Reformed tradition makes this ditinction as well.)

The key to Wright's view is that works are Spirit-enabled. God is working through the believer so that there is nothing meritorious about his or her works.

I stand by my original question. If works are a "necessary" evidence of faith, how are they not a "part" of faith? Presumably, if someone claimed to have "faith" but did not evidence it with works, Piper would question the legitimacy of that faith. How then, could he say that works are not a "part" of faith?

Douglas Bilodeau said...

I am trying to make tentative observations here rather than claims, since I am just beginning the struggle to understand these things. It may be valid to say that works are a part of faith, as you suggest. But why are these semantic distinctions important? It seems they become important when they serve an agenda. Wright finds a "new" meaning in Paul which he is eager to teach. In what practical way are these new ideas important and how do they affect what believers and the church do? It seems to me there is a danger of fixing on works as a measure of faith. But the only qualified judge of works as evidence of faith is God himself. The most important works, it seems to me, are works of the heart - the change in spiritual orientation which comes from grace, and the ways of doing and acting which naturally flow from this new orientation. Wright is fond of saying that Christ is Lord and Caesar is not, but I have not seen a clear statement of what he considers to be the practical implications of this statement. It is a peculiar declaration, considering the various “rendering to Caesar” statements from both Jesus and Paul, which I do not think are intended ironically, since Paul is fairly clear that even a non-Christian civil authority has a providential role. Wright is bishop of an established church. He may not oppose formal disestablishment, but I think he is concerned to find a way to make the church in some way authoritative once more in a nation in which the culture is disintegrating. His goals may be worthy and even urgent. But he could be led into error if his practical concerns were reflected back into his exposition of fundamental biblical theology. I don’t necessarily claim that this is what has happened. Christ is Lord, but the church cannot be lord. The position of the church is one of humility before God’s acts of grace – humility in teaching and humility in leading. I don’t know if I’m making any sense laying out these thoughts. Wright is a great scholar, and I found his exposition of Paul very interesting when I first read it. But since then some warning lights have gone off in my head. Wright has been strangely sensitive and almost combative in recent disputes, which I find disquieting.

Matt said...


I agree that Wright goes too far with the Christ vs. Caesar language. There may be an element of anti-empiricism in Paul, but it certainly isn't the driving message. You brought up Romans 13--clear enough evidence that Paul wasn't trying to be subversive.

As for Wright's motivation, his own stated motivation was his inability to reconcile Paul's attitude toward the law in Romans and in Galatians. In Romans, Paul is in favor of the law. It's good, and Christians should seek to fulfill it (through faith in Jesus). In Galatians, the law is bad and anyone relying on works of the law is under a curse. Paul's attitude in Romans makes a lot of sense to Calvinists, but Galatians is hard. His attitude in Galatians makes perfect sense to Lutherans, but Romans is hard.

Wright says that when he read EP Sanders' work on covenantal nomism, everything "clicked" for him. He could make sense of both Romans and Galatians.

I thought Wright did a great job in Surprised by Hope to show how his theology affects the mission of the church.

Douglas Bilodeau said...

Thanks, Matt, for your overview. I thought Wright made a little too much of the difference between Romans and Galatians - two different kinds of letters for two very different situations. Romans seems to be a more general theological exposition, and Galatians addresses a particular crisis in the local church. I was not all that impressed by Suprised by Hope the first time I looked into it, but I will check it out again.

Douglas Bilodeau said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
william said...

Wright's book "Justification" is one of his most easily readable books. he is clear and to the point.

the reason that he is driven to the conclusion he reaches regarding 2 cor. 5:21 is because of how he defines the "righteousness of God." Wright thinks it means covenental faithfulness; it is not some moral category.

anyways, about the Jesus vs. Caesar thing. I used to think Wright pushed this way to far myself. however, wright makes a great point concerning this matter in his new book. when talking about Josephus' writing he notes that when Jews sat around discussing theological matters in the 1st century, they weren't talking about how to get to heaven or how to avoid hell, but about a coming Messiah who would liberate them from their Roman oppressors and establish Israel as a nation.

the gospel emerges out of that context. Israel awaiting for the God of the exodus to completely deliver her from exile.

Matt said...

Thanks for the comment, William.

It's interesting that Wright is going there now because in NTPG he argues that the "return from exile" theology had evolved so that "exile" was seen as imprisonment to Satan (Matt 12:29), not just the Romans.

At issue is continuity vs. discontinuity. Paul accepted a lot of the theology of Second Temple Judaism, but he also critiqued a lot of it. Even if Josephus et al. saw Messiah as anti-imperial, that doesn't demand that Paul had the same view. Just as Paul offered a critique of Judaism's view of the role of the law, he could have offered a critique of their view of the role of Messiah.

In addition to Romans 13, there is a lot in the NT that suggests "critique of Empire" was not a major theme in early Christianity. The household codes in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 seem specifically targeted at ensuring that the early Christian movement not seem subversive. The Book of Acts as well shouts "we are not a subversive movement."

While I agree with Wright that there is a political element to the Gospel (I even adapted his Gospel definition from Acts 17:7 for the banner of this blog), I think it is only part of a much bigger picture.