The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright

May 6, 2009 — 2 Comments

Future Justification

In writing The Future of Justification, John Piper is making a rather direct response to the writings of N.T. Wright. While it centers on justification, that topic emerges from Dr. Wright’s efforts to generally re-read the Apostle Paul in categories that are largely different from the ones most people use in reading their NT (pg. 16). Dr. Wright is not the first one to conceive of things this way, so the reason Dr. Piper has chosen to respond to him, rather than someone like say E.P. Sanders, or even James Dunn, is that as he says “none of my parishioners has ever brought me a thick copy of a book by Sanders of Dunn and asked me what I thought about them. But Wright is a popular and compelling writer as well as a rigorous scholar.” It would seem then that the overall thrust behind the book is that Dr. Piper feels that Dr. Wright brings confusion and ambiguity to a point where it desperately needs clarity (pg. 24), and so he is attempting to examine the arguments put forward by Dr. Wright in order to try to ascertain whether or not they are illuminating and whether or not as best he can see, they ultimately hold water or not.

Overview

After a brief word on controversy, where Dr. Piper sets forward his concern that lack of clarity on an issue like justification will slowly turn into vagueness in the pulpit (which underlies his pastoral heart in this matter), he moves on to a brief word about the categories that we use when reading the Bible. He effectively challenges the claim that to re-read a certain NT author in terms of the first century context is always illuminating and therefore a more certain way of learning what an author really said (the allusion to Wright’s book is mine, not Piper’s). For several reasons, this is shown to not as certain as one would think. The three reasons listed (pg. 34-36) are (1) that the scholar may misinterpret the secondary source, (2) the secondary source may represent only one view, or (3) the scholar may misapply the idea to the Biblical text.

As such, Dr. Wright is essentially energized by a new reading of Paul in light of a different understanding of the first century context; even to the point of claiming that “the discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot –at least in terms of understanding Paul –and they have stayed there ever since.” (Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 115; Piper, 37). This is a rather fantastic claim as Dr. Piper rightly notes, and the rest of the book generally speaking, is examining whether Dr. Wright’s fresh reading is committing any of the three aforementioned errors. Dr. Piper hopes that while it seems Dr. Wright’s approach has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps confusing, the reader will be able to read through his (Piper’s) interactions and make wise judgments in regard to whether Dr. Wright’s reading is either helpful or accurate (pg. 38).

Dr. Piper ultimately does not find N.T. Wright to offer a compelling retelling of what Saint Paul really said (pg. 24). He lists 8 reasons that then get unpacked over the course of some 10 chapters. They are really points of contention in that they are things that Dr. Wright has put forward that are then examined throughout the book. It is from (6) below, that the double title of the book (The Future of Justification) comes from as it draws attention to not only where the doctrine itself may be going, but also the critical importance of God’s future act in confirming our justification (pg. 184). They are as follows: (1) The Gospel is not about getting saved (ch. 5); (2) Justification is not how you become a Christian (ch. 6); (3) Justification is not the Gospel (ch.6); (4) We are not justified by believing in justification (or in other words, we are not justified by believing in Jesus for justification it seems Wright is saying) (ch.5); (5) God imputing righteousness to us does not make sense (ch.8); (6) Future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived (ch.7); (7) First-century Judaism was not legalistic, had no alleged self-righteous strains in it (chs. 9,10); (8) God’s righteousness is the same as His covenant faithfulness (ch.11). Wright would agree with all the statements, Dr. Piper spends the rest of the book attempting to demonstrate how each of these statements is either false, or at best misleading and clouds the overall doctrine. (6) is probably Dr. Piper’s main concern, but his argumentation generally undercuts the other arguments Wright uses in order to get to a position that seems to claim that justification is a final pronouncement by God on the basis of the whole life lived. That concern is what prompted the book, but the bulk of Piper’s writing focuses elsewhere in an effort to remove all the foundations that would allow someone to make such a claim.

Dr. Piper was a literature major in his undergrad studies at Wheaton, and while that has nothing to do with this book per se, it is a rather characteristic feature of all the John Piper books that I have read that they are extremely lucid and well worded writings, and this book proves to be no exception to the rule, even when wading through some of the heavier and denser arguments put forward by Dr. Wright. After dealing with some initial issues having to do with using law-court imagery in describing how God declares one justified and just exactly what that means, Dr. Piper dives right into examining whether or not the 8 points of Dr. Wright really hold water.

It seems the argument(s) of N.T. Wright actually rise or fall on both semantics (the meaning of words like “righteousness” and “justification”) as well as hermeneutics. This last point is actually two fold in that in Dr. Piper’s examination of Wright’s work, Wright fails to interpret the literature from 2nd temple Judaism properly and so then also fails to use it correctly in interpreting Paul. Wright’s understanding of first-century Judaism is an integral part of his system, and if it proves to be inaccurate, a pervasive re-thinking of most aspects of his thought would be in order (pg. 141). At this point, it really does not matter whether N.T. Wright makes sense of Paul, if the categories he imports into the discussion are flawed, then much of what he says is a mute point.

Where Dr. Piper sees his most fundamental flaw then is misunderstanding of first-century Judaism and seeing a structural continuity between it and Christianity (pg. 134 and expounded in chapter 9). What is totally lost on Wright and is pointed out in a personal correspondence between Dr. Piper and a colleague named Matt Perman, is that there is a failure to realize that believing you get into the covenant by grace but that you stay in by works is in fact legalism (pg. 152n14). What is also lost on Wright is that you cannot read someone’s personal account of where their heart is and always take it at face value, especially in the case of a group of people like the Pharisees who received stinging rebukes from Jesus for the very thing that Wright seems to deny that they did (pg. 154-161). Dr. Piper spends chapters 9-11 focusing in on both Wright’s understanding of first-century Judaism and its structural continuity with Christianity and whether or not the Wright’s conclusions from it and his subsequent reading of Paul are then accurate. It seems very clear from my reading, that Wright does not appear to understand what  legalism really is, and therefore cannot see it very clearly when it shows up in someone’s practice even though they deny it in their writings (pg. 151,159.161).

This cutting off of Wright’s arguments at the roots becomes the overall tone of the book. Going back to the beginning and the semantic laden issues in the first few chapters we see that Dr. Piper shows rather conclusively from Romans (specifically 3:4, see pg. 40-44) that Dr. Wright’s definition of justification as “the declaration that a person is in the covenant family” (pg. 39) is simply incorrect as an overall definition able to be imported to all contexts. Further, it is then shown that Wright has a fundamental misstep (much like he accuses the church of having in the discussions on justification) on his understanding of what the word “righteousness” means, and confuses a result of righteousness (“covenant faithfulness”) with the actual meaning of the word itself. He very clearly confuses what righteousness does with what righteousness is and Dr. Piper goes through great pain to bring this to light (pg. 62-71).

All of the other arguments seem to hinge rather snugly on Dr. Wright’s understanding of the terms “justification” and “righteousness” In other words, Dr. Piper takes the time in chapters 2 and 3 to deal with whether or not Dr. Wright has the correct meaning of those terms in his mind when approaching understanding Paul. If he does not, then most of his other arguments fall to the ground. Chapters 5-8 then deal with each of the points above and tend to rather soundly argue convincingly in the opposite direction that Wright takes. Given that Dr. Wright has inadvertently misconstrued the meaning of those terms (it looks rather like a couple of basic word study fallacies, #9,12,& 16 in Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies), it is no wonder that he comes to different conclusions than what the normal and traditional reader of Paul would come to. A review of this length does not accommodate in depth discussion, which is why I highlighted what seemed to be the lynchpin in Wright’s understanding and whether or not Piper effectively dealt with it and offered an understanding that more accorded with the Biblical text and the traditional understanding of things like justification, which from reading this book, it seems he does rather clearly.

Conclusion

Overall, I found Dr. Piper’s presentation of Dr. Wright’s views to be rather meticulous, although someone who has read Wright more extensively might beg to differ, but he seems to very clearly highlight the overall tenor and pitch of Wright’s arguments and then deals with them in an exegetical, theological, hermeneutical, and philosophical fashion, ultimately coming to what seems a more Biblically sound understanding of the doctrine of justification. N.T. Wright’s has a book (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision)out later this month which is a response to this book. I was interested to see if he could offer a cogent rebuttal. However, in a forum at Boice College, several faculty there (most notably Tom Schreiner) reviewed an advance copy. Their conclusion was that Dr. Wright merely re-asserted his position and did not fundamentally answer the questions brought out by Dr. Piper (specifically in regard to future justification). In other words, it sounds like Wright merely restates his position and does not advance the argument and all and leaves crucial parts of Piper’s book unanswered. Additionally, the panel felt that his tone was patronizing to his opponents and there was some doubt as to whether Dr. Wright really knew what he was talking about on some points (however, those comments may have been slightly out of line).

I am extremely doubtful that Wright can maintain his position without modification based on the arguments in this book, but that could be bias on my part. Nevertheless, this is a very helpful book for anyone who is wondering what all the fuss is about concerning the so-called “new perspective on Paul” and would like more insight into what is at stake and what a well-respected conservative pastor/scholar has to say by means of a critique that has been ultimately offered not to promote division but for the sake of the display of the glory of Christ (pg. 188).

Book Details

  • Author: John Piper
  • TitleThe Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright
  • PublisherCrossway (November 1, 2007)
  • Paperback: 272pgs
  • Reading Level: Bible School level
  • Audience Appeal: Prophetic in explanation, but priestly in tone and response to a perceived doctrinal threat
  • Gratis Review Copy: No

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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