Bible/Interpretation

Piper vs. Wright (3): God’s Righteousness

imagesimages-1We’re comparing the differences between John Piper and N. T. Wright on Paul and the New Perspective using helpful summaries compiled by Trevin Wax featured in the June edition of Christianity Today.  Today we look at “the righteousness of God.”

What does Paul mean by the righteousness of God?  

PIPER: The essence of God’s righteousness is his unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name in all he does.  No single action, like covenant keeping, is God’s righteousness.  For all his acts are done in righteousness.  The essence of human righteousness is the unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of God in all we do.  The problem is that we all fall short of this glory; that is, no one is righteous. 

WRIGHT: God’s righteousness refers to his own faithfulness to the covenant he made with Abraham.  Israel has been unfaithful to this commission.  What is now required, if the world’s sin is to be dealt with and a worldwide family created for Abraham, is a faithful Israelite who can be faithful to the covenant in Israel’s stead.  

Some of my observations include:

1. Context, context, context.  I believe both definitions are valid and I can agree to both as far as it goes.  The real debate is over what the “righteousness of God” specifically means in the context of Paul’s larger argument of, say, Romans 1:16-17:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.

The debate is not mere semantics or as simple as a lexical study.  Both Wright and Piper must show how their understanding of the “righteousness of God” makes best sense of the full argument Paul is making in, for example, his letter to the Romans.  

2. The problem that the gospel provides the solution to seems to have multiple layers.  In my previous post I mentioned the primary, foundational problem of human sin that has drove a wedge between God and man and for which all humanity is under God’s just wrath.   Piper sees this primary problem of God upholding his own righteousness with the fate of unrighteous individuals on trial in God’s holy law court in forefront of Paul’s mind in Romans and elsewhere.  A cursory reading of Romans 1-3 will surely show that the problem of human rebellion and God’s righteous judgment hanging over all is certainly a dominant theme.   

3. Wright, on the other hand, reminds us of the secondary problem God is now addressing through the gospel of Jesus.  Remember that God chose Israel to be his covenant people, the instrument through which he would act to “bring the world to rights.”  The secondary problem occurs when God’s intended solution to the primary problem of sin, Israel herself, fails in her mission and becomes part of the same sin problem.  Wright views Romans as a long, sustained argument or court hearing as well — except God is also on trial here.  How so?  Has God been faithful to his everlasting promises to his people Israel?  As Paul preaches a message of salvation to Gentiles and calls his own Jewish brethren to repentance and faith in Jesus or else, the question looming in the background for many of his Jewish and Gentile Christian readers is: Has God abandoned his covenant with Israel?  If so, has God been faithful to his enduring promises?  In other words, is God a righteous covenant keeping God? Paul, according to Wright, sets out to show how God has acted justly and has upheld his righteousness (or covenant faithfulness) in and through Jesus, the faithful, sinless, torah-keeping Israelite and that in Christ Gentiles and Jews are brought together into God’s true, renewed Israel defined not by race but faith in Christ.  

4. So, the question is: Can both of these themes or problems just mentioned (2 & 3) coexist, co-mingle, dance together in the theologically dense, rhetorically piercing mind of Paul as he crafts this monumental letter to the Romans?  Is the true Paul a sweet and savory blend of both Wright and Piper?  To what extent are they both correct?  Where are they both wrong?  Let’s not oversimplify the debate with hasty black and white arguments.  

4. I think Wright is mistaken if he means to argue that God’s righteousness always and only refers to his own faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham.  I tend to agree with Piper that “no single action, like covenant keeping, is God’s righteousness.”  However, I don’t think that’s what Wright would argue.  I believe he is arguing that in Romans 1:16-17 Paul is arguing that God’s righteous commitment to his covenant promises has been at last revealed in the gospel events of Jesus and what he has accomplished on behalf of Israel and for the world.  I would hope Wright would clarify and argue that he believes this is how Paul is using “God’s righteousness” in this specific covenantal context.  Does anybody know if Wright qualifies and clarifies this in his writings?   

5. Likewise, I believe Piper plays his hand too far when he forces his more individualistic, reformed emphasis on God’s “unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name” to color the entire background of Paul’s thoughts on the gospel, Law, justification and so on. 

As we attempt to wrestle with these two different readings of Paul together, I cannot stress enough (and I’m sounding repetitive I know) the need for more nuance and balance — always guarding against those false “either-or” readings.  

NEXT TIME: How do Wright and Piper understand the historical context of first century Judaism differently?

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