My Conference Paper on Wright, Piper, and Justification

This year, when I proposed 4 papers for SBL, I was very discouraged that all 4 got rejected. Thus, it is the first time in four years I will not be presenting an academic paper at SBL (though I was invited to present in a Phd-prep workshop). I felt, therefore, that my conference experience was going to be a bit deflated.

Then, I got a nice email from ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) asking me if I would participate in the Pauline Studies seminar as part of a review panel discussing Tom Wright’s book Justification (alongside Mark Seifrid and Michael F Bird). I gladly accepted!

The title of my paper is: “To What End diakaiosyne? The Hermeneutics and Ethics of Justification in the Wright-Piper Debate.” (Friday, 3:20-4:00).

I am not an expert on Pauline soteriology, certainly not of the caliber of Seifrid or Bird, but I want to tackle the discussion from another angle: is dikaiosyne the summit of Pauline theology? Is it an end? Or is it a means to an end?

The question normally revolves around whether righteousness is imputed or declared, whether it is Christ’s own or as a result of Christ. Piper is concerned, along with others, that justification loses its power if it is mixed with a semi-pelagian theology that some detect in Wright’s work which ostensibly puts serious stock in the confirmation of righteousness at final  judgment.

I think that, in general, Wright is closer to what Paul is communicating, but I think a better way to work the argument (so as to not appear to be promoting a diminished christology) is to focus on anthropological teleology  – what is the goal of justification? My paper will beg for the answer (I hope): is the end not transformation that is detectable in ethical (or virtuous) living?  Here, I think, Wright has gotten Romans 2:7-8…well…right!

I will try to argue that Wright could buttress his argument by driving further some important texts on justification such as 1 Corinthians 6:11 and the emphasis on the Spirit and justification (cf. Gal. 5:5).

Finally, at the Wheaton Conference, Kevin Vanhoozer gave a show-stopping performance that brought speech-act theory into the conversation. I think, though I am not sure where I will fit this in, that I will try something similar using Berger and Luckman’s work on the sociology of knowledge. This has a great bearing, not just on justification and ‘soteriology’, but also on ecclesiology (as Wright would applaud), identity, and community ethos (which falls generally under the umbrella of ethics).

I do hope some of you will turn up, as I think this will be a fun discussion. Don’t ask me any really complex questions, though!  I may defer and give you the Bird.

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7 thoughts on “My Conference Paper on Wright, Piper, and Justification

  1. Nijay,

    You may want to look into what Piper says a little more closely. Although he reads Rom 2:13 differently, I think he does believe that Rom 2:7-8 refers to a real judgment that believers will pass, and I am certain that regardless of that text, he does fully affirm that believers will be assessed on the basis of their works at the final judgment. The difference is that he thinks that in the final judgment good works serve as the evidence of true faith, which unites one to Christ and thus his righteousness. You may already understand all this quite well, but your post sounds like you think that Piper does not affirm a final judgment on the basis of one’s works. In his book, Wright said that Piper thinks that good works only determine one’s reward, but this is not accurate. If not his book on Wright, Piper’s book Future Grace makes clear that he thinks works are assessed to determine who truly had faith at the final judgment.

    • Andrew, I think you’l find that Piper’s (and Luther’s) concept of imputation of righteousness is not simply initial justification and thus incompatible with Wright’s (and Pauls) view of justification by faith as present grace and forgiveness not extending to final judgement which will be by works for good or for ill (2 Cor 5:10).

  2. Hi Nijay,

    Can urge caution in the use of Berger and Luckmann’s sociology, as it is now very old and dated in the discipline of sociology itself? It is comparable to a NT scholar ending a discussion of Paul and the Law with W. D. Davies.

    I suggest using the work of sociologist Christian Smith instead for the purposes you intend to put it in your paper. Try something like ‘Moral, Believing Animals’. His work should be quite congenial to you as a theologian and biblical scholar.

    • Dear Paul,
      Thank you very much for bringing this concern to my attention. I will certainly look into the work of Dr. Smith and I will poke around a bit more in the study of the sociology of knowledge.

      On the other hand, even though this source (like Berger/Luckmann) is old, it has had a very positive and significant impact in some circles of NT studies and quite recently. David Horrell utilized their work in his 2005 SOLIDARITY AND DIFFERENCE. While it may be “dated,” like Davies on Paul, it may have enough of a classic simplicity to communicate well to those who are in another discipline – as Berger/Luckmann for us. For example, I used some research (for my dissertation) from metaphor theorists in the early and mid
      20th century and these theorists have some faults, but the core of their insights were still foundational and worth repeating and pondering.

      According to my supervisor, an expert in sociology and NT (Stephen Barton), Berger and Luckmann have much to teach us – I have certainly benefited. I guess I need to know in what areas scholars have found fault with their work. Is it in the details or is it in the core?

      Don’t let my thoughts-in-progress bother you – I am merely thinking that I can have it both ways – using Berger and Luckmann and also trying to stay current. :)

      At bottom, while you may be right (and I will try and follow up), Berger and Luckmann’s work is so well appreciated in NT circles (involving sociology) that I think I am on safe ground. If I choose to publish this paper, certainly I will penetrate further into this matter.

  3. Hi Nijay

    Thanks for replying. You have addressed my main concerns.

    You raise a very good point: if the use of older sociological theory has currency and utility in another discipline, and progresses knowledge within it, I cannot complain.

    But you cause me to ask: why not look to good models of social scientific analysis within your own discipline to make your argument: Gerd Theissen, Wayne Meeks etc?

  4. Nijay,

    A great text, at least I think, to see the goal of justification is 2 Corinthians 3 where Paul discusses the old and new covenant. The new covenant ministry is the ministry of life where, through the spirit, we are conformed to the image of Christ. Interestingly, this ministry is called the “ministry of righteousness/justification”.

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