Some Writing on Wright and Piper and Justification

Wright’s Narrative Context for Justification

Wright weaves a simple yet complex narrative of first century Judaism in which his exegesis operates. Keeping with his usual motifs elaborated in Paul: In Fresh Perspective, and later revisited and significantly elaborated in Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright interprets Paul broadly in light of the worldview structures of monotheism, election and eschatology.[1] Regarding justification Wright focuses on the related trio of (1) eschatology, (2) covenant, and (3) lawcourt, pointing out the importance of each for correctly understanding Paul’s teaching.[2]

Wright frequently identifies his narrative model in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision as God’s “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world.”[3] He explains that “many first century Jews thought of themselves as living in a continuing narrative stretching from earliest times, through ancient prophecies, and on toward a climactic moment of deliverance which might come at any moment.”[4] And further, “this continuing narrative was currently seen, on the basis of Daniel 9, as a long passage through a state of continuing exile.”[5]

Covenant and Justification

Wright’s narrative rightly centers around God’s covenanted and solemn promises to Abraham in Genesis 15, which, according to Wright, are to “put the world to rights,” and “undo Genesis 3 and Genesis 11, [i.e.,] sin and the fracturing of human society which results from that sin … [and] to bring about new creation, through Abraham/Israel and, as the fulfillment of the Abraham/Israel-shaped plan, through the Messiah, Jesus.” [6] The sacrificial and atoning death of the Messiah, then, eventuate a new exodus for God’s people and fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises.[7]

Lawcourt and Justification

Wright customarily caricatures Piper when he faults his understanding of righteousness as it relates to the final judgment. But Piper is not too far from Wright in his own understanding. Wright states regarding justification: “This is the present verdict which anticipates the verdict that will be issued on the last day…” [8] While Piper similarly writes, “This is not to deny the reality of a future court scene in which God will judge on behalf of his people.”[9] The two are more complimentary than contradictory in this regard. The difference is one of emphasis; while Piper emphasizes Christology so that justification centers on the judgment already born in the atoning work of Christ which Jews and Gentiles identify with, Wright emphasizes the eschatological scene of divine judgment when the verdict is truly passed. But neither seems to deny explicitly what the other states with regard to lawcourt.

Imputation

The greatest disagreement between Piper and Wright primarily turns on imputation, which Wright stringently denies because he denies any association of righteousness language with moralism or virtue.[10] According to Wright the righteousness of the defendant within the divine lawcourt is purely the status he receives from the Judge as a result of the Judge’s verdict.[11] It is not a moral quality of Christ’s given or credited to the defendant in the manner of traditional teaching. But Wright’s portrait, as mentioned before, has significant soteriological shortcomings of which imputation is but a part. When Wright’s Paul is compared to the Bible’s Paul, the student cannot help but sincerely inquire: Where have sin and the gift of grace gone?[12] Why does Wright not treat, as Piper discusses, righteousness in relation to sin, particularly when the two are frequently juxtaposed in Romans?[13] Why the sharp polemics of tradition which never seem to land on a targeted theologian or scholar?

Lastly, it strikes the reader as odd when it is noted that many of the criticisms that Wright has for Piper, are the very same that Piper has for Wright. For example, Wright declares that Piper’s exegesis of δικαιοσύνη, which Piper takes as “God’s concern for God’s own glory,” is exegetically untenable;[14] while Piper states that Wright’s own narrative model of righteousness language as “God’s covenant faithfulness” breaks the back of exegesis.[15]

NOTES

[1]N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), ch. 5 monotheism; ch. 6 election, and ch. 7 eschatology; idem, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), ch. 9 monotheism, ch. 10 election, and ch. 11 eschatology.

[2]See N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009) 101.

[3]Wright, Justification; understood within his narrative formulation: 66-8; 94-9; 103-4, 105; within his exegesis of Galatians: 122-4; 122-32 passim; within “the righteousness of God,” 164-5, 179; within his exegesis of Roman 194-6, 200-209, 243-4.

[4]Wright, Justification, 59 (original emphasis).

[5]Wright, Justification, 60 (original emphasis).

[6]Wright, Justification, 99. Wright is on to something when he points out that justification language is closely related to the subject of Abraham in Paul’s thinking. On this point critics should pursue his lead. By dismissing Abraham as a “faith example” that Paul employs, critics miss a critical covenantal connection: “But the obvious parallels between Galatians 3 and Romans 4 should indicate that, if Paul is referring to the promise of Genesis 15 in terms of ‘covenant’ in the former passage, there is no reason why he should not also be referring to it in the latter.” Justification, 98. And p. 99: “This is why ‘covenant,’ albeit clearly a shorthand, is an excellent way of understanding the full depth of Paul’s soteriology. It is Paul’s own shorthand, in Galatians 3; and, in Romans 4, he can say the same thing with the word righteousness.” (Though exegeting covenant and righteousness as lexically synonymous is very tenuous.)

[7]Despite Wright’s polemics against understanding righteousness in relation to morality – e.g., “righteous” does not mean “morally virtuous” (see p. 206 as one example) – he curiously states (within the very narrow scope of two pages) that the Messiah’s atonement actually makes right “the cosmic moral deficit” of those sins previously passed over by God (204). But how can Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness be seen as morally deficient and God’s faithfulness to the covenant, which according to Wright is “God’s righteousness,” not be seen as moral? Is righteousness/justification language moral or not? It is allowances such as these by Wright that create frustrating confusion for readers who really desire to understand him.

[8]Wright, Justification, 204.

[9]Piper, The Future of Justification, 58.

[10]See Wright, Justification, 104-5 as a fair example.

[11]Wright, Justification, 134-5.

[12]See John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002), 53, 57, 98; esp. 93.

[13]See Piper, The Future of Justification, 179, writes, “Not surprisingly, Wright makes nothing of the coordination of ‘sin’ in the first half of verse 21 and ‘righteousness’ in the second half of the verse.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,
so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The most natural way to think about ‘righteousness in this verse is as the counterpart of ‘sin.’”

[14]Wright, Justification, 69-70. It is ironic that Wright regards Piper’s exegesis as “torturous argumentation” (p. 70) when one reflects on Wright’s own exegesis of 2 Cor. 5:21, which virtually every scholar rejects.

[15]Piper, The Future of Justification, 163-80.

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