Piper vs. Wright Justification/Righteousness Debate

I just stumbled upon an interesting discussion today about God’s Righteousness that I thought you all might like. Specifically, it is a four part blog series about the current John Piper / N.T. Wright justification/righteousness debate written by J. R. Daniel Kirk, a New Testament Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.

To summarize the debate real quick, Piper is a Reformed theologian who says 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.

On the other hand, Wright, as an Anglican biblical theologian 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.

It is worth nothing that this debate is more then a disagreement among scholars.

It is a debate that is being worked out on streets across the globe – as in; most traditional evangelical churches tend to favor John Piper’s view on theology/justification/righteousness, while the rising Emerging/Missional Movement tends to favor N.T. Wright’s view. As such, I think Kirk’s summary of the debate is very timely as it is worth understanding and knowing BOTH views as we are called to love and to bless BOTH groups.

Join the discussion: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3a (Part 3b and 4 are yet to come)

0 thoughts on “Piper vs. Wright Justification/Righteousness Debate”

  1. I don’t quite understand Wright’s view. So righteousness only applied to Israel? What about for us who aren’t under that covenant? Is there a different kind of righteousness for us? How is different from us not being under the Old Testament covenant any more (i.e. we don’t make sacrifices)? It sounds like he’s arguing for something more drastic – that the whole idea of righteousness (deeper than just sacrifices) is tied to Israel. So there is no righteousness for us?

    I agree with Kirk’s idea that virtues play out differently in different contexts. -His example is with faithfulness. However, the underlying virtue itself (faithfulness) still remains true, even if how it plays out changes according to context. So righteousness would still apply to everyone, even if it might look different for Christians today compared to Old Testament Jews.

  2. Rebecca, IMO Wright isn’t so much saying ‘righteousness only applies to Israel’ as he is saying, “when the NT authors talk about righteousness and justification (those words are actually part of the same word-family in Greek) they are talking about a specific thing that isn’t what 17th century theologians or 21st century pastors mean by them; what these words refer to is faithfulness to the covenant.” So righteousness refers to God’s righteousness in that He is faithful to His covenant promises, and Israel’s righteousness (or lack of) in that she has been faithful to her covenant obligations. Wright is saying that Jesus is that righteousness in that He fulfills both sides of the covenant (God’s part, and Israel’s part) and in doing so, is providing salvation for the gentiles, which is precisely what God had always intended through His covenant with Israel.

    Wright is saying that Scripture doesn’t traffic in imagery taken from a 16th century European courtroom because Scripture was written 1600 years earlier, and a continent away, in another context entirely. The idea of a judge who’s hands are tied because, “well, this is what the law says, and I can’t do anything about that!” is simply not a scriptural way of thinking, because that wasn’t how ‘laws’ and ‘judges’ worked in the cultural milieu that scripture was written in. The judge was essential ‘making laws by judging; his or her job description was ‘making things just’ as opposed to ‘making things legal.’

    The essential difference is that we (inheritors of a Western way of thinking) think of ‘righteousness’ in terms of living according to an external standard of rightness, whereas the Jews who wrote the Bible thought of ‘righteousness’ in terms of living according to the obligation I/we have to a specific person. If you’ve ever read about Plato’s Forms, you can immediately see how that concept has shaped Western notions of ‘goodness.’ It is actually funny as a Westerner to realize that our difficulty in even conceptualizing another way of talking about ‘goodness or righteousness’ is an indicator of just how deeply ingrained the paradigm is…

    If you are interested in this discussion you must read the two books written by each of these men. Piper wrote a book attacking (cordially) Wright’s position on justification, and Wright wrote a response…

    Sorry for the 10 page paper!

  3. Thanks – that is very helpful! It makes much more sense. I remember my Old Testament professor saying the Jews had a different idea of holiness than we do – more about meeting the Levitical cleanliness rules, rather than moral purity like we mean. Which seemed odd to me at the time. It kind of fits with what you were saying – that it was more about requirements in a relationship, rather than abstract universal concepts of rightness.

    I can see how it fits with Plato’s ideas of the abstract ideas of things – like the essence of a chair. And I have to admit, that is how I think of righteousness, as fitting a universal concept of rightness. But I can see something good about a perspective that is more relational, since western culture has distanced itself from relationships.

    It is interesting how our cultural context can affect our theology. I have a couple of friends from Asia and Africa who comment how western theology is so analytical and breaks things apart, whereas theologians from their context tend to look more at relationships and the whole. As they commented, it’s good for both of us to learn from the other perspectives, to achieve more balance. Neither perspective has the whole truth, but we can get a bigger picture.

  4. Thanks Steven for your 10 page paper. You explained things a ton better then I could have! =)

    @ Rebecca – This is why it is extremely important to understand the cultural context from which someone is writing or speaking. Granted, sometimes it is not always possible to fully understand someone (or our own) cultural context… but we are to try. 😉

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