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

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright
John Piper
(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2007)

Piper devotes an entire book trying to dismantle N. T. Wright’s interpretations of Paul, yet he is just as tendentious as he accuses Wright of being. Piper’s starting point is not the Bible itself, as he would like to claim, but rather “fifteen hundred years of church tradition.” That is Piper’s ultimate authority, which he invokes repeatedly. Yes, Piper does say that scripture must come first, but his Reformed tradition is clearly the prism through which he views scripture and his criterion for deciding issues on which the biblical text itself is ambiguous. According to Piper, Wright can’t possibly be right because on some key points he dares to question this tradition. Never mind that much of this tradition has brought us intolerance (only believers are saved regardless of their “works”) and even bloodshed in the name of a loving Christ. If Wright questions any of it, Wright must be wrong.

This is not to say Wright isn’t vulnerable. His understanding of “justification by faith” as essentially a marker of belonging to the covenant people seems reductionistic, ignoring the spiritual struggle that underlies the need for justification. But Piper is not really helpful. While presuming to be a better exegete than Wright, he still relies on church tradition to tell him what the Bible means. Well one must rely on something, since the biblical text is often ambiguous and cannot by itself always definitively prove one point over another. (One famous point of contention is whether “pistis Christou” means “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ.” The Greek supports either translation.) It is circular reasoning for Piper to claim Wright is mistaken in questioning church tradition when that same tradition informs his understanding of the Bible that leads him to that conclusion.

Another example of Piper’s circular reasoning is his use of the condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 to “prove” that first-century Judaism was little more than a dry legalism. In this area Wright relies heavily on the research of E.P. Sanders, who argued that Matthew 23 and similar passages have read back into the time of Jesus conflicts between the synagogue and the new church that arose later. That is precisely why such passages do not give us insights into the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Therefore if Piper wishes to contest that conclusion he needs to address its premise, which is that Matthew 23 is a polemic reflecting later tensions between synagogue and church. Instead Piper just ignores the issue and uses Matthew 23 with apparently no awareness that the very argument he is addressing questions the validity of that use.

While Piper claims that scripture is his ultimate authority, he does whatever he can to bend scripture to conform with Reformed tradition. An example is his convoluted exegesis of Romans 2:13 (“It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified”). After going through all kinds of contortions and speculations to get to where he wants to go, he concludes that we are indeed justified by faith alone, but good works are the “evidence” of that faith; it’s how we know that such faith is present. Well if good works necessarily accompany faith in Christ and are how we may decide whether such faith exists, then works, not faith, become the criterion by which one knows that a person is justified. If faith automatically led to good works, then there would have been no need for James to say that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17) and that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). (No wonder you will rarely hear a Reformed theologian quoting James, though that too is scripture.)

History provides abundant evidence, through the Crusades and the Inquisition and numerous religious wars, that faith and good works do not always coincide. If you say that such behavior is evidence that a Christian’s professed faith is not real, then once again you are using works, not faith, as your criterion for justification. If works are needed to show that faith is actually present, and if the lack of works proves that one’s faith is false, then “faith alone” has no real meaning.

So before becoming too complacent about Piper’s defense of the “old perspective” one would do well to read Wright’s answer to Piper in his new book “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.” Wright does a good job of putting Piper in his place, especially pointing out the egotism of using the Bible primarily as a manual for one’s personal salvation. As Wright so aptly puts it, “We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around.”

Piper’s approach will no doubt remain popular among many who find security in received doctrines and who consider questioning them illegitimate or even blasphemous. However, Piper’s Christianity, which likely will appeal most to American evangelicals, is not the only form of authentic Christianity, nor even is it the most faithful to scripture, in spite of its pretensions to absolute, exclusive truth. While I cannot subscribe to all of Wright’s interpretations, his work should stimulate independent inquiry and deeper investigation of the biblical text. And that, after all, is much of what the Protestant revolution was all about.

August 2009