A couple of times over the past month or so I’ve been asked in one way or another to weigh in on what is becoming the Piper v. Wright showdown, what before that was the Presbyterian v. Wright showdown, what before that was a vigorous conversation in New Testament scholarship. Since I discovered just yesterday that Piper has been selected as the “leading exegete” to represent North America at the Lausanne Conference in South Africa, I figured now was the time.
Here’s how I dissect the different positions on offer by Piper and Wright: Piper’s understanding of righteousness and justification flows from an understanding of the cosmos in which the law of God (an essentially timeless entity, but with some historical representations such as the Decalogue) regulates humanity’s standing before God. Wright’s understanding of righteousness and justification flows from an understanding of the cosmos in which the in-time story of Israel, and God’s covenants with this particular people, regulates humanity’s standing before God.
It may be that Piper will at times express his understanding in terms of “covenant,” akin to what we find in classic covenant theology that developed at the time of the Reformation. But even then it is viewed as an instrument to regulate the essentially transhistorical law of God.
The difference in the kind of covenant theology that Wright has on offer is that it is tied to specific stipulations and promises for particular people in particular times and places.
This difference between an essentially timeless law of God and a historicized development of a covenantal relationship gives rise to their different understandings of righteousness, justification, and faith.
When trying to understand the connotations of “righteousness” in the Bible, we need to remember that the connotations about which people differ in these debates will not be found in a dictionary or lexicon entry. “Righteousness” essentially means the characteristic of someone who does what is right or just.
But the whole source of difference between Wright and Piper is this: What, exactly, is the “right” thing that God must do in order to be righteous? Or, what is it for us to be a person who can be judged as “right”?
In other words, this is not a debate about the lexicon, it’s a debate about the theological framework within which the word righteousness gets used, and what it therefore connotes.
We don’t use the word “righteousness” all that much in normal language, so let me illustrate with a word that we’re more comfortable with: faithfulness.
Faithfulness will always mean loyally performing what we are bound to do on the basis of some relationship. But this also means there there will be an inherent level of relational relativism. In fact, being “faithful” can mean the exact opposite course of action depending on which relationship I’m talking about. For example, what it means for me to be a “faithful” husband will entail performance of certain actions that my role as “faithful” professor will entail abstaining from. To take the obvious example of sex, being a faithful and righteous husband entails engaging, being a faithful and righteous professor requires abstaining.
The move in Piper’s Reformed theology is to say that the entire world is under the same law, will be judged by the same law, and requires fulfillment of that law in order to be justified. This transhistorical narrative places all of us on the same footing, and sees God as simply the judge who judges based on our failure to attain to the standard.
Wright’s biblical theology suggests instead that righteousness is more closely tied to the specific relationship God has with Israel. Israel is required to perform certain actions, to fill certain roles, and God has bound himself to respond in certain ways. The work of Jesus is about a surprising fulfillment of Israel’s calling to obedience (in the cross), and God’s fulfillment of his covenant obligations comes in vindicating those who faithfully join themselves to this crucified and risen king.
Tomorrow we’ll work out a bit of the exegetical basis for making the decision one way or the other. Then Thursday I’ll see if I can’t work through a few of conundrums Wright hopes to solve with his revision of the story; specifically, how does the life of Jesus fit into the story? And I’m sure that by Friday we’ll have had enough chaotic back and forth that some further triumphant declaration of some sort will be in order (maybe something like: Why New Testament scholars don’t care about this debate). Stay tuned!