Future of Justification 14: Common Ground?
In chapter 8, John Piper tries to give N.T. Wright the benefit of the doubt and seeks to understand whether Wright is affirming with different words that which the Reformed tradition has expressed through the doctrine of “imputed righteousness.” He notes how Wright seems to see justification “according to works” and justification “on the basis of” works as interchangeable (117).
I appreciate very much the fair treatment that Piper gives Wright in this chapter. He avoids incendiary accusations against Wright for not using the language of Reformation confessions. He also demonstrates a willingness to hear Wright out and not jump to conclusions.
The good news comes first. Piper quotes Wright making traditional Protestant affirmations. Good works show our justification, are signs of our justification, and give evidence and proof of salvation (119-120). Piper includes a lengthy quote from Wright regarding the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (121-123), and then summarizes Wright’s view of imputation this way:
“Here Wright says at least two key things. One is that when believers are identified with Christ, ‘what is true of him is true of them and vice versa.’ The other is that the ‘accomplishment of Christ is reckoned to all those who are ‘in him.’” (123)
Piper points out how close this seems to the Reformed understanding. But he points out that Wright does not see imputation here as being a reckoning to sinners of Christ’s fulfillment of the moral law, but a reckoning of the status of vindication (124). Again, Wright’s different definition of “righteousness” is causing him and Piper to use similar words to say different things.
I understand that for my readers this post might seem highly technical. I am trying to encapsulate briefly a highly technical theological debate between two leading Christian scholars. What it ultimately comes down to is this: Piper believes that Wright’s system leaves no room for the traditionally understood imputation of Christ’s obedience to the sinner’s account. In fact, Piper believes that Wright has muddied the waters on this issue, so much so that it is unclear as to whether righteousness is imparted (the Roman Catholic view) or imputed (the Protestant view) (124-126).
Piper quotes Wright saying that his understanding of imputed righteousness follows Galatians 2:20, and then Piper says:
“It is not clear what ‘this’ refers to when he says, ‘If this is what you are trying to get at by the phrase imputed righteousness…’ but it appears to refer to the main thing that is happening in Galatians 2:20, namely that Paul’s new life in Christ is being lived by faith in the Son of God. (127)”
I almost hesitate to delve so deeply into the subtleties of this debate, but as long as we’ve come this far… In Piper’s summary of Wright’s quote (regarding Galatians 2:20), he has missed a significant difference. Wright does not quote Galatians 2:20 as saying “the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” He quotes the KJV – “the life I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God” (or faithfulness of the Son of God).
Wright continually argues that “faith in Christ” in Paul should often be rendered “faithfulness of Christ.” I believe it is in this distinction that leads to Wright to affirm “with different words” that which he believes the Reformed tradition teaches.
Chapter 8 is difficult swimming for any reader – theologically trained or not. The subtle differences between Piper and Wright may make average readers scratch their heads and say, “What is the big difference?”
I do not concur with Piper that Wright has completely abandoned the historic doctrine of imputation. There is enough of the substance of the doctrine left in Wright’s theology to see it if one searches hard enough. But why should one have to search hard? Why can’t Wright speak more plainly on the subject?
I do concur with Piper that Wright’s own position on this doctrine is quite confusing and sometimes contradictory. It seems Wright does not want to clarify his position on how works serve as a basis for justification. Perhaps he is weary of being drawn into the intricacies of Reformed exegesis which he believes imposes a foreign paradigm on the text.