Piper, Wright, and the way we read scripture
John Piper's new work, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007), is free online (thanks you Nick for the heads up!). Piper has some good things to say in his many books. Has he hit the nail on the head this time?
I haven't made time to read Piper's work yet, I've just skimmed it, but I wanted to share a few thoughts that occurred to me as I read. I am not sure if the problem I will detail below is symptomatic of Piper's argumentation in this work generally. That waits to be seen. But let me share my thoughts as I read the following passage:
Does Not Mean Covenant Faithfulness
Finally, Wright's assumption that the phrase dikaiosu,nh qeou/ means "the covenant faithfulness of God," instead of the more traditional "the righteousness of God," is not warranted. I have tried to show why this is the case (see chapter 3). The meaning of dikaiosu,nh qeou/ is most fundamentally the "righteousness of God" in reference to his unwavering commitment and follow-through to do what is right—which is to always uphold the worth of his glory. It is the opposite of sin, which is a falling short of God's glory (Rom. 3:23); and it is what God requires that all of us must have (Rom. 1:21), but that none of us does have: "None is righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10)' (Page 179).
I need to back up and try to explain something before I comment on this. We all read scripture in terms of a certain story (or stories) that makes sense of our world. When we read scripture, many of us will effectively decorate with biblical quotes a story of what we think Christianity is and what Jesus means, but even though that story uses biblical language to describe itself, it is one that is not faithful to the general scriptural narrative. It is like reading astrophysics as if it were all about chemistry alone. To simply transport one discourse into the other is to misrepresent. When this happens, scholars say people are proof-texting (proof-texting is NOT simply drawing from scripture to justify arguments, by the way). I.e. they are decorating a story or metaphysical structure with bible verses as if it was simply the construction of a biblical teaching or worldview, as if it were careful exegesis. This happens so much it can be depressing.
As an example, let me be provocative: many approach the scriptures with a pre-understanding that the essence of Christian faith is all about individuals being sinful before God, and that in order to get to heaven when you die one must have a personal relationship with Christ. Some passages of scripture, of course, can be cited in strong support of aspects of this picture, and it becomes the basic story to which all passages of scripture then become attached. This pre-understanding of the meaning of Christian faith may sound scriptural (and contain a good deal of truth), even if it is off track. Hence,
- if Paul speaks about 'new creation' in 2 Cor 5, this must be another way of speaking about something that happens to me in my relationship with Christ.
- If I read 'righteousness of God' it must point to something I get in order to cancel my sin and be saved (I'm deliberately being course with this description).
- If I read Jesus' words: 'Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven' (Matt 19:23), this must mean that I need to be careful with my wealth or I won't go to heaven.
- If I read of the power of sin in Paul, or seeking to be justified by law, all must revolve around my sin and my legalism etc.
The examples cited above are mixed. However, I suggest we would not understand what the scriptures in each case actually mean if accept the above readings as 'what the text really says'. If you read those examples thinking, 'yes, that's what I think', I suspect that your understanding of scripture is being channelled through an interpretive lens that distorts what is in front of your eyes. The little interpretative story I prefixed these examples with, about going to heaven, sinful before God etc. contains truth, but is also inadequate and can lead to scriptural misunderstanding.
It is not that the above meanings and interpretations are inherently or totally wrong. Of course not. However, to return to the examples:
- the 'new creation' language of 2 Cor 5 point to something bigger than me and my standing with God (which is only a subset of this larger picture – cf. Joel Green's Salvation). But to see this one will have to read the scriptures with different 'lenses' – one informed more thoroughly by the scriptural narrative.
- This is a complex one, but in my view the righteousness of God is not simply something that makes up for the hole in me after my sin is forgiven (or something like that). It is God being faithful to his covenant promises to defeat evil and renew creation, a movement up into which individuals are caught. But to see this one will have to read the scriptures with different 'lenses' – one informed more thoroughly by the scriptural narrative.
- To enter the kingdom of heaven is not to enter heaven. They are not synonymous. 'Heaven' was just a pious way of avoiding saying 'God', and Jesus here is speaking of entering the kingdom of God, i.e. the economy of existence over which God is undisputed King. This may be related to some notions of 'going to heaven', but they are not synonymous. The goal of Christian hope is a new heavens and a new earth, the resurrection of the body, that God will be all in all. But to see this one will have to read the scriptures with different 'lenses' – one informed more thoroughly by the scriptural narrative.
- The power of sin in Paul is a slave master (cf. Lichtenberger's monograph on this), a semi personification that enslaves all humanity. It is related to but, again, not the same as the notion many Christians have in their heads. It is a cosmic force that Christ alone can defeat. And the 'works of law' Paul attacked may well be related to modern notions of legalism (in their corrective, I personally think Wright and Dunn go too far here), but they are not synonymous. Works of the law were tied to social and 'horizontal' matters, not simply about how one related to God. But to see these points one will have to read the scriptures with different 'lenses' – one informed more thoroughly by the scriptural narrative; one more informed, simply.
Scriptures are so often transported into a different economy of discourse, into a different story of the meaning of Christian faith, and they are thereby obscured. Read from the perspective of the less scriptural lenses, these errors will not even be seen, and wrong claims will be fervently and confidently made as if they were doing simple exegesis, as if one were attending to the historic meaning of the texts. But the truth is different.
I'm not sure I've done a good job trying to explain my thoughts there, but now back to Piper. He writes:
'The meaning of dikaiosu,nh qeou/ is most fundamentally the "righteousness of God" in reference to his unwavering commitment and follow-through to do what is right—which is to always uphold the worth of his glory. It is the opposite of sin, which is a falling short of God's glory (Rom. 3:23); and it is what God requires that all of us must have (Rom. 1:21), but that none of us does have: "None is righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10)'
OK, but it all depends according to which story one understands these words. God's 'unwavering commitment and follow-through to do what is right' is, according to the scriptural narrative, in my view God's faithfulness to his covenant promises which themselves find their meaning in the wider scriptural narrative of God's good creation, spoiled by sin, and God's mission to set things right once again. And the worth of God's glory is tied up with this story, this mission, this salvific plan. Is the dikaiosu,nh qeou/ the opposite of sin? Yes, I think it is – more or less! But it depends on how this is understood! If this is understood according to the wider scriptural narrative and the echoes of this story in Paul's argument in Rom 3:23, for example (which Piper refers to), then it will mean something different to how one would understand it according to system of cherishing glory and personal sin (Piper, in an earlier article on this issue fails to grasp the scriptural picture, and instead thrusts everything into his own understanding of 'desire' and cherishing glory and such like). Important as such matters are (and other interpreters forget them, so keep on preaching Piper!), they must not become the interpretative lens at the expense of an appreciation of the wider scriptural dynamic.
I read the passage in Piper's book cited above and smelt the wrong interpretive lens all over it. I hope this is not actually the case, and I need to read the book, but if Piper's work generally simply decorates a pre-given understanding of faith with bible verses, he will be doing none of us a favour. The trick is, these erroneous lenses many read scripture with sound so scriptural. But they are only so in a superficial way. In my opinion, one of Wright's major strengths is that he takes the scriptural story seriously. And though his proposals look different when he is done, it is our eyes that need to adjust, not his.