Thursday, May 01, 2008

Analysis 14 - Which Comes First?

John Piper

John Piper's book The Future of Justification (Crossway, 2007) is a great thing. If you have not read it, then you must. It is a clear, passionate, informed, pared down, thoroughly documented, careful expose of the Bishop of Durham's views on justification. It certainly needs no support in this task from Helm’s Deep.

But one or two things in the book deserve underlining, and in one case developing. In this Analysis I do some underlining, in the next two , ‘Baxter’s Soup and Wright’s Soap’, and ‘Aspirational Theology’, some developing.

In this Analysis I shall try to do two things.

The first is to draw attention to what I believe is one of the most significant methodological points that Piper makes, but one which may, in the flurry of interest about justification, and the dust raised by it, get overlooked. The second thing is to underline what Piper says about the ambiguity of some of Bishop Wright’s language about imputation and justification. What both of these have in common is that Piper shows us the need to observe theological distinctions.

Being and doing

Piper claims that ’Wright’s definition of righteousness does not go deep enough’ (62) What he means is that Wright’s account of divine righteousness starts and stops with his account of divine actions.(62-4) He treats righteousness in terms of actions. Piper asks, ’What is it abut God’s righteousness that inclines him to act in these ways? Behind each of those actions is the assumption that there is something about God’s righteousness that explains why he acts as he dos. What is that? That is the question, so far as I can see, that Wright does not ask.” (63 Piper’s emphasis) ‘God’s righteousness, , before there was a covenant, determined that punishment for sin would be part of what happens in the covenant (and outside it!)…..Limiting the “righteousness of God” in this context (ie Romans 3.25 etc.) to covenantal categories is too narrow.’ (68)

Piper's concern is not over some definition of righteousness not being adequate, but over the coherence of an account of divine righteousness that does not begin with who God is. Being, the being of God, comes first; acting is a consequence of being. This is true generally; glass is not fragile because it easily smashes, it easily smashes because it is fragile. In God’s case, doing righteously follows from being righteous. Acting faithfully is a consequence of being faithful. Wright’s account is not deep enough because it does not start with the character of God, but with the actions of God.

Piper’s identification of this failure in Wright is of considerable significance in his treatment of the Bishop’s view. But it is also vitally important more generally in Christian theology. For various reasons it is at present hugely fashionable to think of theology in narrative form: covenant (Horton), speech-act theory and ‘theodrama’ (VanHoozer), and, more generally, to think predominantly in the category of history, redemptive history, ‘biblical theology’. (Let’s call what is common to all these approaches, whatever their differences, ‘N theology’). In Wright’s case this way of thinking is habitual because he is first and foremost a historian, and so first and foremost thinks in terms of historical sequences, of sequences of action, human and divine, and of their significance.

But Piper has put his finger on, and highlighted, an inherent weakness with such approaches. They all need what a merely narrative, sequential focus does not and cannot deliver. They need a doctrine of God. (Piper has said this before, and at greater length, in his wonderful book The Justification of God, (Baker, 1983), but to say it again in The Future of Justification is more timely than when he first said it, I imagine.)

But if the Bible is a grand narrative, (not, incidentally, a 'meta-narrative') an account of God’s dealings in ‘redemptive historical’ terms, and nothing more than that, where does a doctrine of God come from? For the narrative theologian it can only come from a summation of divine actions, a generalization from them. God acts faithfully on this, that and the other occasion, and therefore he is faithful. But one thing is sure, that won’t work. It won’t work logically. (I know that life is more than logic, but it cannot be less than logic.) Why is this? Because from

(1) God has done A and then he has done B and then he has done C, and all these are faithful (or righteous, or loving or wise) actions

It does not follow that

(2) God is faithful (or righteous, or loving or wise)

At least it only follows that God happens to be faithful, in a similar way to the way you and I happen to be faithful. From the mere fact that God has been faithful on X occasions it does not follow that he will be faithful next time, X + 1. So God’s righteousness cannot be equivalent to covenant faithfulness, though covenant faithfulness follows from it. God might swear an oath, and he might confirm this with another oath. But what about next time?

The argument of the writer to the Hebrews is strikingly different from that of an N-theologian

So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. (Heb. 6.17-9)

How does the writer get from ‘God gives two oaths’ to ‘these two oaths are unchangeably faithful and therefore can be utterly relied upon’? Answer, because an oath (usually) appeals to something greater. In this case God does not swear by something greater, but swears by himself. Why is that? Because there is nothing greater in respect of faithfulness than God himself, and (in respect of a covenant) that nothing-greater-than is expressed by the impossibility of God lying. God might have appealed to something that was generally faithful. But this would not have given the necessary credibility. It would have been swearing by something less than himself. But swearing by himself, swearing by one than whom there is no greater, underlines in a dramatic way the utter reliability of his covenant, the impossibility of it failing by God having lied.

So from where does the writer of Hebrews get to the impossibility of God lying? Answer: he must get it from non-narrative aspects of the narrative. These are aspects that, physically speaking, are within the narrative, but they do not have the logic of a narrative. They have the logic of declarations or announcements; the character of our old friend the proposition. God tells us truths about himself, (or as seems to be the case in Hebrews 6) he grants the inspired writer an insight that enables him to draw an inference that would have escaped the rest of us. Such declarations or inferences of a declarative nature about God stitch the narrative together. They make it not merely a narrative about God but God’s narrative.

Of course the suggestion that God might not be faithful next time seems preposterous to N-theologians. But it seems preposterous because they smuggle in another thought – that God is essentially or necessarily faithful. Where does this come from? From God’s self-revelation, a self-revelation that is about a timeless reality even though the act of revealing occurs in time. (Exodus 34 is a paradigm of this.) N-theology, concerned only with historical sequences, does not allow us that thought, but at this point – mercifully – the practice of the N-theologian is often better than his preaching. He gains leverage by a means that by the lights of N-theology is illicit. He stands on the shoulders of the Berkhofian systematic theologian.

I’d go so far as to maintain that the systematic theological task does not need biblical theology or any of its friends. What we do need is exegetical theology. I gain some encouragement to assert this from something that John Piper says. ‘Behind each of those actions is the assumption that there is something about God’s righteousness that explains why he acts as he does. What is that? I do not ask it for speculative reasons but exegetical ones.’ (63) Exegesis shows (Piper believes) that ‘What we find therefore in the Old Testament and in Paul is that God defines ‘right’ in terms of himself. There is no other standard to consult than his own infinitely worthy being’. (64, Piper’s emphasis).

Which comes first? Doing is an expression of being. Being comes first. There’s much more to be said, but enough for now.

‘On the basis of’, ‘according to’, ‘in accordance with which’.

Piper has an excellent, sustained discussion (in most of chapters 6-8 of the book) of the unsatisfactoriness of Bishop Wright’s claim that justification is ‘on the basis of……’. or ‘according to......’. Here I certainly do not think it is possible, on the available evidence, to do better than Piper does in trying to settle what Bishop Wright means when he uses these expressions. All I shall attempt is to sharpen the sources of the ambiguity which, as Piper shows (and despite 10,000 words of commentary by Bishop Wright on an earlier draft of The Future of Justification), still lies at the heart of the bishop’s views.

Bishop Wright’s views are fairly obviously ambiguous at this point, both in the sense that (though being ready to accuse others of ‘fuzzy’ thinking) he has not troubled to clarify the senses of ‘on the basis of’ or ‘according to’ and also because, as Piper shows, he flip flops from passage to passage, now stating that justification is on the basis of this, and now claiming that it is on the basis of that.

The distinction that needs to be drawn, and that Piper draws (e.g.119) is surely pretty straightforward. It is the distinction between something itself, and the evidence of that thing. Sometimes the evidence for a thing is part of that thing, sometimes it is distinct from that thing, it is what that thing is related to, or typically or usually manifests or expresses. The evidence of having measles is a high temperature, for this is one of the ways in which the viral infection we call measles characteristically expresses itself. The evidence of having been born in Blackpool may be a birth certificate that states as much. But ‘causing a rise in bodily temperature’ is not what measles is, not even a part of what measles is. And ‘possessing a certificate with my name on it stating that I was born in Blackpool’ is not what being born in Blackpool is. Being born in Blackpool is being in Blackpool when one was born. Usually the certificate is only a part of the evidence of being born in Blackpool, or (in certain circumstances) it may be the whole of the evidence for that fact. In normal circumstances, the rise in temperature confirms the fact of measles (along with other evidence), the birth certificate confirms the fact of being born in Blackpool (along with other evidence).

Justification ‘on the basis of works’ could thus mean one of three things. It could mean (a) that justification consists in the performance of certain actions, or (b) that justification partly consists in the performance of certain actions or (c) that justification is something which certain actions give evidence of the presence or reality of. There does not seem to be a fourth alternative. These alternatives have nothing to do with the doctrine of justification by works, but with what ‘on the basis of’ may mean.

So why does Wright not immediately disambiguate? Why does he not say, ‘I see, of course, the distinction between X and the evidence of X, and that these may be different. And what I am saying is…..’ and then provide us an answer of type (a) or (b) or (c)? Partly, perhaps, because of a certain ecumenical motivation, a desire to look for an approach that will harmonise his doctrine with that of the Reformation. But chiefly because he can’t, since certain concepts are intrinsic to certain doctrines. (See Piper, 131-2) The problem is that the concepts inherent in the Reformed doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ – imputation, alien righteousness, the instrumentality of faith, and the like - cannot be translated into other categories. They can be translated into different words, provided with definitional equivalents, but that’s not the point. Ultimately we are dealing not with words but with things and their expression in concepts.

Bishop Wright comes as near as he can to the Reformed view but has the opinion that the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is ‘saying a substantially right thing in a substantially wrong way’. (quoted in Piper, 131) But there is not something, the doctrine of X, which can be less well expressed in the categories of the Reformation, and better expressed in the categories employed by the Bishop of Durham. If you state the doctrine in a substantially wrong way this affects the substance of what you say. And then you lose that substance; it changes into another substance, and what you state is something else.

A common pattern?

Although the two matters that we have briefly touched on in this Analysis are quite different, perhaps they exhibit a common pattern or tendency of thinking, a tendency to conflate X and the evidence for X: to say, the evidence of God’s righteousness is God’s righteousness: the evidence of justification is justification. Is this the result of a disinclination to make distinctions, and to draw logical inferences? Is this also a feature of N-theology? Maybe we can even draw another moral, that certain doctrines essentially involve certain concepts. If for whatever reason you change those concepts you necessarily change the doctrine.

Which comes first? In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.