"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Monday, September 14, 2009

John Piper is wrong (but N.T. Wright is too)


In 1997, John Piper published a book of devotional writings called “A Godward Life.” One of the entries was titled: “Did God Command a Man to Earn His Life? - Thoughts on the So-Called Covenant of Works.” Ultimately to this question: Did God command a man to earn his life: Piper answers “no.”

Piper writes, “It is true that God commanded Adam to obey him, and it is also true that failure to obey would result in death (Genesis 2:16-17)...But the question is this: what kind of obedience is required for the inheritance of life – the obedience of earning or the obedience of trusting?” (pg 171) Piper answers “trusting” which is synonmous with faith. (pg 171-172) To see it as earning, it is charged that this would be “legalistic.” (pg 172)

I believe Piper is wrong. Not that earning life (I'll even call it meriting life) would be legalistic. Indeed it would be. But Piper is wrong that God did not set that very system up. Adam was given a covenant agreement that if he obeyed, he would merit eternal life. It was legal and in accordance with justice, hence legalistic. Adam was told to earn life.

Piper can only see a disobedience of a lack of trust as what was evil about Adam's sin. “What made Adam's sin so evil was that God had shown him unmerited favor and offered himself to Adam as an Everlasting Father to be trusted in all his council for Adam's good.” (pg 172) It must be admitted that to be given a covenant or even initial life is unmerited. Adam did nothing before he was created to merit being created. Neither did Adam do anything before being given a covenant to merit being given a covenant. But that is NOT the question. The question is the nature of the agreement set up by God. The agreement was not anti-meritorious. On the contrary, it was a meritocracy, merit-pay. “Do this, then you get this.” The payment may have been out of propotion. That's not the point. It was payment: wages for work. Grace in salvation was not needed for sin was not yet a problem. Grace as salvific answers the problem of sin, but before sin, Adam was to keep God's commandments, and in this probationary period merit eternal life. Adam did not do this by faith or trust alone, but by works. Faith after Adam is trusting Christ's works, but Adam's works, not yet defiled by sin, needed no substitute.

What Piper rejected in his 1997 work is what I believe makes his response against Wright and the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) not as strong as it needs to be: both NPP and Piper have no functional doctrine of a covenant of works. (*Piper has acknowledged that the Covenant of Works may have validity, but it has not become functional in his theology as far as I have seen)

Piper asks an odd rhetorical question to try to prove the absurdity of a covenant of works as being failed by Adam and fulfilled by Jesus: "Should we think of the Son of God relating to his Father as a workman earning wages? Are we to think of the role of the 'second Adam' as earning what the 'first Adam' failed to earn? I his role not rather to glorify the trustworthiness of his Father, which Adam so terribly dishonored?"

My answer to the first two questions is Yes. To the final question: Yes and no. Not rather, but also.

How is Jesus the second Adam? Does Jesus merely trust God better than Adam? Or does Jesus merit eternal life where Adam failed? Jesus legalistically earns what we cannot not. Paul seems to have this contrast between Adam and Christ in view in Romans 5:12-21. Paul had previously set up just such an "earning" and meriting situation in Romans 2: "[God] will render to each one according to his works" (2:6) and "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified." (2:13) Paul tells us the way to righteousness is work. But then no one does this righteousness (Romans 3:10-12). So instead salvation must be given by a gift (3:24) and "one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." (Romans 3:28). This is only possible because of the life and death of Christ (5:10) whom we may be joined to, as the choice becomes union with Adam or Union with Christ (5:12-21). By evil work, Adam brought condemnation to all humanity, Christ by righteous obedient work brings new life. (5:18)

Christ obeys were Adam sinned. Christ earns what Adam did not. By virtue of our union with Christ, that righteousness is imputed to us. It is "legalistic" for Christ, not for us. This is part of why we call imputation forensic, meaning legal. Adam was given a covenant that was a chance to merit life by obedience. Adam failed. From then on, no man could merit life for he was tainted by sin. Christ was given that same covenant and succeeded. Christ was perfect not merely to be a pure substitute in sacrifice, but also in order to obey the covenant of works on our behalf and merit His righteous obedience to the covenant of works imputed/credited to us by faith not works. We need both to have our wages paid (the wages of sin being death) and also to have eternal, resurrection life merited for us by Christ's righteous keeping of the law/covenant of works. This is the ministry of the gospel then:
2 Cor 5:20-21 - "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
Our choice then is: who are we united to? Are we in Adam or in Christ? (1 Cor 15:22) Are we united to Adam's meriting of death, or the second Adam's meriting of life. Do we try to fulfill the covenant of works on our own, or do we plead the covenant obedience of Christ? This is the only ground by which we can talk about imputing Christ's righteousness.

Meredith Kline went so far as to say,

“imputation is obviously not compatible with the position that disavows the works principle. On that position, a declaration of justification and conveyance of eschatological blessings in consequence of a successful probation, whether of Adam or Christ, would be an exercise of grace, not of simple justice. But if there is no meritorious accomplishment possible, the rationale of the imputation arrangement in general becomes obscure, if the whole point of it is not in fact lost. In the case of the gospel, if there is no meritorious achievement of active obedience on the part of Christ to be imputed to the elect, then this cardinal doctrine of soteric justification in its historic orthodox form must be abandoned.”

I think Kline is right, though he was not talking specifically about the NPP or Piper. If Piper wants to affirm an imputation of Christ's righteousness, he needs to revisit and clearly affirm the idea of a covenant of works with Adam based on merit, for the sake of Christ's merit. Piper's case against Wright is defective, as they both improperly understand the covenant of works which is at the heart of the old Reformation perspective (for the Reformed as a covenant of works and as the Lutherans understand the law). Piper may certainly make his case based on his own theology, but it should not be seen as the definitive “old perspective.”

17 comments:

あじ said...

How is your "covenant of works" not Pelagianism? If Adam could merit life by obedience, wouldn't he have grounds for boasting?

Andrew said...

I would have to agree, that Adam had original righteousness, a grace to obey God, it wasn't possible even by nature. The loss of this grace was original sin... but I'm just repeating Aquinas here and I know no one will agree with me.

I find it interesting to note the similarities between Roman and Reformed theology on justification being in a sense: union with Christ. While you guys discuss sola fide as perfectly uniting us with Christ's righteousness via imputation, it sounds a bit like (though in complete contradiction to) Catholic sacramentology which speaks of union with Christ in Baptism and to the sacrifice of Christ through the Eucharist.

I'm sure those first two questions will illicit anger and response, but my real question is: If you believe humans are actually imputed with Christ's righteousness, then why do you believe men die? (this might be a dumb question but humanism and skepticism aside, I think its a valid theological question). For if those who have Christ's imputed righteousness have perfectly fulfilled the law, then why do they die?

Jared Nelson said...

What is wrong with Pelagianism? It doesn't take seriously the effects of sin. Man is affected by Original Sin and is corrupted in his nature so that nothing man does on his own is able to be acceptable before God.

Adam existed before sin. Pelagianism applied to this instnace is anachronistic. Adam had no corrupting sin nature or to deal with the effects of original sin. Indeed, Adam was the original sinner and before him Origianl Sin did not affect man.

To speak of grace before the fall requires definition. There is no need for salvific grace before the fall. Adam did not need saved from sin before sin. One may say, again, that Adam did nothing to deserve initial life or being given a covenant but that is not the question. The question is the nature of that covenant given to Adam. It is not based on the necessity of salvific grace to rescue Adam from the wages of sin and death. Therefore Adam cannot boast of his salvation from sin for he has no need to save himself from sin before he sins.

To reiterate: The covenant Adam is given is based on wages. Therefore, it is not based on unmerited favor. Adam's initial life was not merited and receiving a covenant was not merited, but the reward of the covenant was based on merit.

Jared Nelson said...

I see Reformed and Orthodox discussing Union more than the Catholics. (but maybe that is just the early church.) Reformed and Lutherans speak of it differently too. For the Reformed, union is the basis of justification. Imputation is organic in that sense in Reformed Theology. For Lutherans justification is the basis of union (and many Calvinistic Baptists if they talk about it too, oddly enough since they see themselves as more Reformed rather than Lutheran). The forensic begets the organic for Lutherans.

Jared Nelson said...

Not that this a proper argument, but there is a bit of irony in calling the idea of a covenant of works or law-principle in Adam Pelagian, as Lutherans and Reformed (two traditions that most proudly claim the Augustinian traditions) both teach it.

あじ said...

Adam's life (existence) was unmerited, but his final end (union with God) cannot possibly have been merited either. Was union with Christ only necessitated by sin, or was it God's plan all along, with sin (and death) being an obstacle to overcome along the way? I can't see how you can have identical soteriological ends with completely different soteriological means. (Not to say that the crucifixion is a different means, but rather an addition to the original means.)

Or did you think God placed Adam into a non-eternal universe with eternal life? Unless Adam's sin ontologically reconfigured the entire universe, the Incarnation was always necessary, and recapitulation depends on it.

Jared Nelson said...

Gal 3:12 But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them."

The Law brought life to the one that could fulfill it. Adam did not. Thus

Gal 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us--for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree"--

Christ took the payment for Adam's sin upon Himself and gave us the merit of His fulfillment of the Law.

Questions of the Incarnation or union with Christ if Adam did not fall are immaterial. Adam did Fall. Therefore God willed to have Adam fall and to provide opportunity to have union with Christ and planned Christ's Incarnation. To ask what God would will if He did not will what He willed is fun speculation, but speculation nonetheless. Do not let speculation of contigency drive you to reject the teaching of Scripture on the law/covenant of works.

あじ said...

I would say that claiming that Adam could by works alone fulfill the covenant is pure speculation. But you simultaneously deny that he could have, because you say that God willed him to not fulfill it.

Moreover, if you wish to hold that claim, you should be able to answer some very basic speculation about what would have happened if Adam did keep the covenant. My inquiry is no more speculative than the postulation it is testing, so I consider it perfectly valid.

Jared Nelson said...

Scripture speaks this way as regards to Adam. (Gen 2:16-17, Gal 3:11-12) It is contingency, not speculation. (do this, get this. do something else, get another thing) It is based on offer and promise, not speculation. Is it speculation to say Judas would have been saved if he believed on Christ? He was not destined to, but it was offered to him just as to everyone. This is contingency, not speculation.

Saying that Incarnation and the work accomplished in Incarnation can logically follow without sin is speculation. No contingency is stated this way by Scripture. Scripture does say God planned to accomplish atonement from the foundation of the earth in Ephesians and Revelation, but redemption is unnecessary and not necessitated without fall. That Adam fell, is why Redemption was executed. To say Redemption (Incarnation, etc) would be executed if Adam did not fall says a solution would be provided for a problem would not occur. That is speculation.

あじ said...

The passage in Galatians is not referring to Genesis 2, but to the law of Moses. The entirety of Galatians 2 proves this. Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 27:26, if you really want more proof. Absolutely nothing in Galatians points back to Eden.

The contingency in Genesis is death, not eternal life. To claim that Adam could keep the covenant by works alone and thereby attain eternal life is speculation, having nothing to do with the contingency of death. The text never bothers to explain the "tree of life," whether there were any conditions on Adam eating it, whether it represented eternal life or union with God, or any such thing.

Jared Nelson said...

Gal 3 is talking about law as a principle, including but not limited to Moses. The proof of that is Paul is talking about Abraham (not Moses) in Galatians 3. Abraham came before Moses and the Mosaic Law. The principle of law "the one who does them shall live" preceeds and is broader than the Mosaic law.

Contingency in choice requires more than one possibility. Death for disobedience is not the only contigency. Obedience requires another possibility which is life. This is the law-principle, which is not limited to Moses and after. "Do this and live" applied to Abraham and Adam (though post-Adam no one can fulfill it, requiring Christ to merit through the law what Adam could not which is in view in Gal 3) That's why I cited Gal 3 because the law-principle applies to post-Moses and pre-Moses. If it applies pre-Moses as in Gal 3, then it applies to Adam, for the recompense of disobedience (death) reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom 5:14) and the law-principle did not begin with Moses.

あじ said...

It's one thing to assert that "law" in this context can mean something other than the law of Moses, it's quite another to show evidence for it. "Law as a principle" is pretty abstract and indefinite.

What does 3:17 say? The law comes after Abraham. What does 3:19 say? The law was added. How does chapter 3 close? Speaking of the descendants of Abraham. Everything goes back to Abraham and Moses—repeatedly—not to Adam. What is Leviticus 18 about? The laws for the nation of Israel, not a "law principle." What is Deuteronomy 27? It is the end of the law of Moses. What follows? Blessing and cursing and renewal of the covenant, which is founded on the law of Moses. That covenant Paul says is done away. What does chapter 4 say? The slave is earthly Jerusalem, bound under the law of Moses. The free is the spiritual Jerusalem, corresponding to Christ, who makes us heirs of the promise to Abraham.

Certainly we can't be talking about some sort of general moral law, or else Paul is antinomian. If we are no longer subject to the law (3:25) does that mean the moral law is now gone? We see in 3:19-25 that the law is temporary. If it's the moral law, why do we get to 5:13-6:10 and start discussing overcoming fleshly desire, that is obedience to the moral law? Paul's point is that overcoming the fleshly desire is accomplished by the Spirit, not by the law of Moses. It makes no sense to say that obeying the law means you're not obeying law, but that's where things devolve when treating "law" in Galatians to mean something other than Moses' law. I'm not convinced that the convolutions necessary to make it work are at all what Paul had in mind.

What's the point of 6:12? Jewish Christians wanted to continue living as Jews to avoid persecution from unbelieving Jews. Paul himself was a former persecutor (1:13,21). Who is doing the persecuting in 5:11? Unbelieving Jews. Nobody is being persecuted for not following some abstract "law principle." That type of persecution doesn't come until later, as Christianity becomes threatening not just to Jewish traditions and power structures, but also to Roman.

What principle do you use to distinguish whether or not "law" can be generalized? Certainly 5:3 is excluded, which also rules out 5:4. I don't think it can be 2:16-19 because of 2:14. Again, 3:10 specifically points us to Deuteronomy, the law of Moses, so that rules out the first half of chapter 3. The second half of chapter 3, again, places the law after Abraham. Nothing abstract about that. I can't find any way to sort out which "law" is which.

Having said all that, I guess I should actually get around to reading what N.T. Wright has to say about Galatians, because I'm getting the sense that I might agree with him. I've searched in vain for a "law principle" here, and it just doesn't seem to exist. I cannot find any connection to Adam, and I still see the so-called "covenant of works" as Pelagian. I recognize the irony, but throwing off tradition often leads to irony.

Jared Nelson said...

Law can mean Mosaic Law but is broader than that in application and meaning. That's what I'm saying. Not that Paul can't or doesn't mean Mosaic law in certain passages (even most!). I also don't mean that he always means law as principle, but that when he uses it, it doesn't just mean "Jewish" law as a particular expression, but law (doing, working) as a means of justification. In Romans 2, Paul speaks of the law for the Gentiles which is not the Mosaic Law. The Gentiles do not have the Mosaic dietary law written on their hearts. They have a moral law and a concept of justice, a recompense for work. That is the principle of the law. What Paul says about the law elsewhere can be applied to that because the term "law" can mean Mosaic law specifically but is broader than that. Mosaic Law is a particular expression of a more universal reality. Speaking in a manner about the Mosaic law stands as a metonymy as just recompense for the Gentile readers.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Nicely put Jared.

あじ said...

The problem is, metonymy can be a pseudonym for bypassing context, making the text say what you want it to say. From Luther's Law/Gospel dialectic to the "covenant of works," the text becomes nothing more than a pretext for manipulation by the systematician. But a garment made of imaginary cloth remains imaginary, whatever the proclamations of the fabricators.

If Paul's opponents are not proto-Pelagians (to borrow a phrase) then the claim of metonymy becomes much harder to prove. Thus far, I haven't seen exactly how to approach the metonymous content of the text in a consistent, non-arbitrary manner. Perhaps that is too rationalistic a criteria, but it's my default way of thinking. (I do recognize that consistency itself is no guarantor of truth, yet it remains an important criteria for me.) Perhaps I just want more rules than I can actually follow.

Sorry for dragging the comments out for so long.

Jared Nelson said...

The rules are how the Scripture uses a term or concept across the span of progressive revelation. If you are interested in looking at how that may be done, I'd recommend:

Biblical Theology by Vos

http://www.amazon.com/Biblical-Theology-Geerhardus-Vos/dp/0851514588/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1253545313&sr=8-1

Anonymous said...

Jared.. Excellent insight.. Particularly with regard to Christ succeeding as the representative of the race whereas Adam failed in stewardship.. Keep up the good work..