Future of Justification 7: Defining "Righteousness"
Chapter 3 of The Future of Justification represents John Piper’s first significant area of disagreement with N.T. Wright’s theology. Piper seeks to fairly represent the building blocks of Wright’s theology of justification and righteousness. He quotes Wright extensively at the beginning, especially Wright’s words about justification being primarily the final justification at the Last Day (57-58).
Piper sees Wright’s contention that justification in Pauline usage is always final justification as “too sweeping.” He then quotes Wright on what “righteousness” means in this Last-Day lawcourt.
The question surfaces: Is N.T. Wright a modern-day Martin Luther? After all, if Wright is correct on the definition of righteousness, then 1500 years of Christian theology have been terribly misguided. Piper appreciates that Wright hopes to stand in the Reformation stream of questioning tradition by appealing to the text (61). But Piper gently points out how the Reformers sought to show that the early Church Fathers agreed with their interpretation, something that Wright does not do.
Piper’s main critique deals with Wright’s definition of righteousness as “covenant faithfulness.” Piper believes that Wright’s definition is reductionistic.
“Wright’s definition of the righteousness of God does not go to the heart of the matter, but stays at the level of what divine righteousness does rather than what it is. (62)”
Piper affirms what Wright affirms. Righteousness is God’s faithfulness to the covenant, his impartiality, his dealing with sin, and his helping the helpless. But Piper wants to go further than Wright in actually defining what righteousness is in its essence, not merely its actions.
Piper wants to ask the question he believes Scripture demands we ask: What is it about God’s righteousness that inclines him to act in this way?
What follows is a very Piper-esque definition of righteousness:
“The essence of the righteousness of God is his unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name. And human righteousness is the same: the unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of God. (64)”
Piper-esque though it may be, this definition is closer to the biblical understanding of righteousness than Wright’s. Piper trots out several Old Testament texts containing Hebrew parallelisms which back up his definition (64-66). He then argues that Paul himself saw righteousness in these terms. At one point, he lists a text where he sees Wright himself backing away from his reduced definition because Piper’s fits so much easier (68).
One of the reasons I enjoy reading N.T. Wright is because he never allows the “gospel” to be narrowed down to just me and God and my personal salvation. He insists we see the gospel in all its glorious manifestation and makes the pale, truncated gospel of evangelicalism look as pitiful as it often is.
That’s why I am all the more surprised that Wright has rejected what is essentially a more robust, glorious definition of “righteousness.” Piper has not argued against what Wright says righteousness does. He has zoomed in like a laser beam and exposed the reductionistic definition of righteousness in Wright’s theology. He is arguing essentially that Wright doesn’t go far enough, doesn’t go deep enough. I believe Piper’s critique is valid.
This sets the stage for the next chapter – where Piper tackles Wright’s denial of imputation…
written by Trevin Wax © 2007 Kingdom People blog