Tuesday, July 29, 2008

John Piper's best book?

Yesterday I finished reading The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. It's an excellent book. I've always been more a fan of John Piper the preacher than writer, and have been shaped in profound ways by listening to what I'd guess to be hundreds of hours of his sermons. I've benefited from his books too (especially Don't Waste Your Life -- which rocked my world a few years back), but I've always found Piper's message more compelling from the pulpit...perhaps because most of his books are so much a reflection of his preaching, which I think is his singular gift. But this book displays a different facet -- Piper the theologian and intellectual (in the best sense) more so than Piper the pastor. Although, in writing this book he has a pastoral purpose in view, namely, to prevent future (thus the title) confusion in preaching and teaching these essential doctrines if N.T. Wright's views on justification gain wider currency within the church. This has become my favorite book by Piper and may turn out to be his most important.

The "future" of the title also alludes to one prominent strand of Wright's thought. His view that although justification happens in the present by faith alone, apart from works, there will be a future/final justification at the last judgment based on the record of an entire life lived. As with a lot of Wright, how this works out in practice is difficult to come to grips with. Piper bends over backward to give Wright the benefit of the doubt and is quick to highlight areas of agreement. He praises Wright for his valuable work in NT studies, his stress on the cosmic/corporate nature of the gospel -- so often neglected in our individualistic "Jesus and me" age -- and his defense of the substitutionary, penal atonement. (This isn't mentioned, but I enjoy how Wright mixes it up with those who conflate Christianity with unfettered free-markets or right-wing political preoccupations -- see his recent exchange touching on that and other issues with Richard Neuhaus in First Things.) Piper mentions a lengthy correspondence with Wright during the writing of the book which caused it to grow dramatically in size as Piper engaged various texts suggested by Wright. I look forward to a response from the Bishop of Durham. I'm an admirer of Wright and nothing in this book will keep me from reading and listening to him in the future, though in this area I think he's dead wrong or (at best) does more harm than good with some of his emphases.

On balance, I think Piper fairly and plainly (one of his writing strengths) expresses Wright's ideas on justification and the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and effectively refutes them in the light of Biblical exegesis and the history of Protestant thought. One section of TFOJ deals with Wright's reading of Paul that sees his use of the phrase "the righteousness of God" as meaning God's covenant faithfulness. This affects Wright's edifice of thought in many ways, not least in leading to his writing that the traditional Protestant view of the imputed righteousness of Christ becoming our's at the moment of justification "makes no sense" and is a "category mistake." Piper demonstrates how it's Wright's definition that doesn't make sense, not least in a chapter toward the end where he soundly refutes (in my opinion) Wright's iconoclastic reading of 2 Corinthians 5:14-21. Yes, covenant faithfulness is an implication of God's righteousness (just as honoring contracts is an implication of integrity) but it's misleading and confusing to end there.

This book is an example of a scholarly of work written with the average layman in mind. Better yet, it springs out of a pastoral, passionate heart for the gospel. I agree with the Baptist preacher from Minneapolis that, despite his formidable gifts and accomplishments, Wright isn't a modern-day Martin Luther standing up against centuries of misguided tradition. Here's an excerpt to give you the flavor of the book. In it Piper discusses another distinctive Wright and NPP reading of Paul which he'll go into in more depth later.

Wright is recognized for his unusual definition of justification as the declaration that a person is in the covenant family. For example, he says, "Those who hear the gospel and respond to it in faith are then declared by God to be his people.... They are given the status dikaios, 'righteous', 'within the covenant.'" Or again, and more sweepingly, "'Justification' in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God's eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people."

Is Wright true to the apostle Paul's thought when he makes covenant membership the denotation (as opposed to implication) of the divine act of justification? It seems to stretch Paul's language to the breaking point. We will deal with Wright's use of the concept of justification more fully in later chapters, but it may be helpful to register an initial objection here. Will Paul's use of δικαιóψ (I justify) bear the weight of Wright's meaning? I doubt it for at least two reasons.

One reason is that there are uses of δικαιóψ in Paul where the meaning "declaring one as a covenant member" does not work. For example, it does not work in Romans 3:4 where God is the one who is justified: "Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, 'That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.'" The usual meaning of "reckon one to be just or innocent" fits in Romans 3:4, but "declare to be a member of the covenant" does not. Similarly, in 1 Timothy 3:16, Christ himself is said to be justified: "He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated [εδικαιψθη = justified] by [or in] the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory." That is, Christ was shown to be, or declared to be, in the right, just, vindicated.

Another reason that δικαιóψ will not bear the weight of Wright's meaning is that Paul's use of the word regularly signifies a definite action that accomplishes something now. It is not simply a declaration of a person's covenant membership that came about decisively through another prior action (e.g., God's effectual call).

John Piper, The Future of Justification (pp. 39-41)

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