Wednesday, March 20, 2013

John Piper's Hypothetical Question to Pope Francis


Back in 2009, a question was posed to John Piper: If you were given two minutes with Pope Benedict XVI, what would you say to him? Last week, with the accession of Pope Francis, he revisited the issue, along the way clarifying his earlier accusation of Roman Catholic "heresy." Piper's response is worth citing in full:
A few years ago, I was asked on camera what I would say to the Pope if I had two minutes with him. I said I would ask him what he believed about justification. The video ended with me putting the question to the Pope and then responding as follows:
“Do you teach that we should rely entirely on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith alone as the ground of God being 100% for us, after which necessary sanctification comes? Do you teach that?”
And if he said, “No, we don’t,” then I’d say, “I think that right at the core of Roman Catholic theology is a heresy,” or something like that.
“Heresy” is a strong word. The problem with it is that its meaning and implications are not clear. Dictionary.com defines heresy, for example, as:
  1. opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system.
  2. any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.
You can see how fluid such definitions are.
So what did I mean in the video?
I meant that the rejection of 1) the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as an essential part of the basis of our justification, and 2) the doctrine that good works necessarily follow justification but are not part of its ground — the rejection of those truths is a biblical error so close to the heart of the gospel that, when consistently worked out, will undermine saving faith in the gospel.
The reason for saying, “when consistently worked out,” is because I think it is possible to inconsistently deny the truth of imputation while embracing other aspects of the gospel (blood bought forgiveness, and propitiation, for example), through which God mercifully saves.
I am thankful that God is willing to save us even when our grasp of the gospel may be partial or defective. None of us has a comprehensive or perfect grasp of it.
Nevertheless, God’s mercy is not a warrant to neglect or deny precious truths, especially those that are at the heart of how we get right with God. And the teachers of the church (notably the Pope) will be held more responsible than others for teaching what is fully biblical.
Thus, any church whose teaching rejects the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as an essential ground for our justification would be a church whose error is so close to the heart of the gospel as to be involved in undermining the faith of its members.
Piper's remarks have quickly been disseminated and critiqued in blogs such as those by Scot McKnight and Tim Gombis. Piper, despite his winsomeness, has become something of a whipping boy on my blog. Nevertheless, his remarks, though not surprising, demand some sort of critical response, if for nothing else than the enormous influence Piper wields in American NeoPuritan/NeoReformed circles. I would like to focus on two issues.

First, evangelicals are, historically speaking, not in a position to play theological inquisitor. Here Gombis is spot on in his critique of Piper. Evangelicals, even if one charitably traces their theological lineage back to the 16th century Reformers, are the Johnnies-come-lately on the ecclesiastical scene. And each decade brings with it further examples of the fissiparous tendency innate to Protestantism. Indeed, the fact that a Baptist like Piper, who operates outside of an explicitly confessional framework, insists on playing the doctrinal cop is quite a delicious irony. Ask Pope Francis what he believes about Christ. Ask him, as Gombis shrewdly suggests, whether or not he has even heard of American evangelicals and, if he has, how he perceives them theologically and missionally. But don't ask him whether or not he subscribes to a distinctly Protestant—indeed, distinctly Reformed—theologoumenon. If one does, expect the same answer from him as one would get from me if asked whether I subscribed to transsubstantiation or the immaculate conception of St. Anne. His presumed negative answer would only prove that Francis is indeed, as one might expect from a newly-minted Pope, a Roman Catholic. That might confirm the inquisitor in his or her theological superiority complex, but it would ultimately be unhelpful.

Piper's first question brings up a second, more serious issue. Years ago, in his deliberately controversial small book, What Saint Paul Really Said, N. T. Wright made the insightful comment that people are not justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith. They are justified by faith in Christ whether or not they have even heard of the Protestant interpretation of that distinctly Pauline notion. Over the ensuing years, I have heard many of Wright's vocal detractors claim that no Lutheran or Reformed scholar ever claimed that people are justified by their right theology about justification. Perhaps not. But I can testify that many lay evangelicals operate on that very assumption. And statements like Piper's come very close to it as well, though he stops short of claiming that correct theological belief in all particulars is a sine qua non of salvation. Thus he admits that the Pope might be genuinely a saved person despite that fact that his erroneous teaching about the imputation of Christ's righteousness and the place of works in justification could "undermine the faith of [his church's] members."

Piper, though, both elevates a disputed theological notion (the imputation of Christ's righteousness) to the place of an essential element of the gospel and implicitly operates within the parameters of the old, 16th-17th century antithesis between Protestant "imputed righteousness" and Catholic "infused righteousness." Anyone familiar with the evangelical justification wars over the past decade knows that Piper is one of the champions of the classic Reformed view known as "double imputation," according to which believers are declared righteous both now and at the final judgment ("justified") on the basis of their sins having been "imputed" to Christ on the cross and his "righteousness" (i.e., his obedience to the law) having been "imputed" to their account. Indeed, with many such interpreters, Christ's death on the cross, while essential as a propitiation of God's wrath, is somewhat eclipsed by an emphasis on Christ's righteousness as the "meritorious basis" of one's justification, even at the final judgment (here, of course, they disagree with, not only Catholics, but Protestants who interpret Romans 2 as more than hypothetical).

I will have much to say about this subject in a series of forthcoming posts. Suffice it to say here, however, that no text in the New Testament clearly affirms it (which is odd for something supposedly so central to the gospel). Accordingly, many Protestants, myself included, disagree with the notion as commonly articulated by Piper and others in Reformed circles (though, as Protestants, we maintain that the "righteousness" granted to believers through faith is an external righteousness, namely, the status of being "in the right" before God the Judge by virtue of our union with Christ in his sacrificial death and vindicating resurrection). Hence to ask the Pope whether he affirms "double imputation" would serve no purpose other than to lump him together with Protestants who, though they too disagree with Roman Catholic doctrine, likewise disagree with Piper.

More importantly, many if not most Protestant theologians are quick to note that the Roman church has never rescinded the anathemas of the 16th century Council of Trent against Protestants who held Lutheran or Reformed views on justification. But they seem to have failed to notice that many Catholics have moved much closer to Luther than many could have guessed centuries ago when the Reformation battles were being waged. One example is America's premier Catholic New Testament scholar, Joseph Fitzmyer, who sounds positively Lutheran in many of his exegetical comments on Romans 3 in his fine commentary on the letter. Even more to the point is the retired Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2008 spoke about justification as follows (I quote the entirety of his address):
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
On the journey we are making under St Paul's guidance, let us now reflect on a topic at the centre of the controversies of the century of the Reformation: the question of justification. How does man become just in God's eyes? When Paul met the Risen One on the road to Damascus he was an accomplished man; irreproachable according to the justice deriving from the Law (cf. Phil 3: 6), Paul surpassed many of his contemporaries in the observance of the Mosaic Law and zealously upheld the traditions of his fathers (cf. Gal 1: 14). The illumination of Damascus radically changed his life; he began to consider all merits acquired in an impeccable religious career as "refuse", in comparison with the sublimity of knowing Jesus Christ (cf. Phil 3: 8). The Letter to the Philippians offers us a moving testimony of Paul's transition from a justice founded on the Law and acquired by his observance of the required actions, to a justice based on faith in Christ. He had understood that what until then had seemed to him to be a gain, before God was, in fact, a loss; and thus he had decided to stake his whole existence on Jesus Christ (cf. Phil 3: 7). The treasure hidden in the field and the precious pearl for whose purchase all was to be invested were no longer in function of the Law, but Jesus Christ, his Lord. 
The relationship between Paul and the Risen One became so deep as to induce him to maintain that Christ was no longer solely his life but also his very living, to the point that to be able to reach him death became a gain (cf. Phil 1: 21). This is not to say he despised life, but that he realized that for him at this point there was no other purpose in life and thus he had no other desire than to reach Christ as in an athletics competition to remain with him for ever. The Risen Christ had become the beginning and the end of his existence, the cause and the goal of his race. It was only his concern for the development in faith of those he had evangelized and his anxiety for all of the Churches he founded (cf. 2 Cor 11: 28) that induced him to slow down in his race towards his one Lord, to wait for his disciples so they might run with him towards the goal. Although from a perspective of moral integrity he had nothing to reproach himself in his former observance of the Law, once Christ had reached him he preferred not to make judgments on himself (cf. 1 Cor 4: 3-4). Instead he limited himself to resolving to press on, to make his own the One who had made him his own (cf. Phil 3: 12). 
It is precisely because of this personal experience of relationship with Jesus Christ that Paul henceforth places at the centre of his Gospel an irreducible opposition between the two alternative paths to justice: one built on the works of the Law, the other founded on the grace of faith in Christ. The alternative between justice by means of works of the Law and that by faith in Christ thus became one of the dominant themes that run through his Letters: "We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law; because by works of the law no one will be justified" (Gal 2: 15-16). And to the Christians of Rome he reasserts that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Rm 3: 23-24). And he adds "we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (ibid., v. 28). At this point Luther translated: "justified by faith alone". I shall return to this point at the end of the Catechesis. First, we must explain what is this "Law" from which we are freed and what are those "works of the Law" that do not justify. The opinion that was to recur systematically in history already existed in the community at Corinth. This opinion consisted in thinking that it was a question of moral law and that the Christian freedom thus consisted in the liberation from ethics. Thus in Corinth the term "πάντα μοι έξεστιν" (I can do what I like) was widespread. It is obvious that this interpretation is wrong: Christian freedom is not libertinism; the liberation of which St Paul spoke is not liberation from good works. 
So what does the Law from which we are liberated and which does not save mean? For St Paul, as for all his contemporaries, the word "Law" meant the Torah in its totality, that is, the five books of Moses. The Torah, in the Pharisaic interpretation, that which Paul had studied and made his own, was a complex set of conduct codes that ranged from the ethical nucleus to observances of rites and worship and that essentially determined the identity of the just person. In particular, these included circumcision, observances concerning pure food and ritual purity in general, the rules regarding the observance of the Sabbath, etc. codes of conduct that also appear frequently in the debates between Jesus and his contemporaries. All of these observances that express a social, cultural and religious identity had become uniquely important in the time of Hellenistic culture, starting from the third century B.C. This culture which had become the universal culture of that time and was a seemingly rational culture; a polytheistic culture, seemingly tolerant constituted a strong pressure for cultural uniformity and thus threatened the identity of Israel, which was politically constrained to enter into this common identity of the Hellenistic culture. This resulted in the loss of its own identity, hence also the loss of the precious heritage of the faith of the Fathers, of the faith in the one God and in the promises of God. 
Against this cultural pressure, which not only threatened the Israelite identity but also the faith in the one God and in his promises, it was necessary to create a wall of distinction, a shield of defence to protect the precious heritage of the faith; this wall consisted precisely in the Judaic observances and prescriptions. Paul, who had learned these observances in their role of defending God's gift, of the inheritance of faith in one God alone, saw this identity threatened by the freedom of the Christians this is why he persecuted them. At the moment of his encounter with the Risen One he understood that with Christ's Resurrection the situation had changed radically. With Christ, the God of Israel, the one true God, became the God of all peoples. The wall as he says in his Letter to the Ephesians between Israel and the Gentiles, was no longer necessary: it is Christ who protects us from polytheism and all of its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity within the diversity of cultures. The wall is no longer necessary; our common identity within the diversity of cultures is Christ, and it is he who makes us just. Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason Luther's phrase: "faith alone" is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love. So it is that in the Letter to the Galatians in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification St Paul speaks of faith that works through love (cf. Gal 5: 14). 
Paul knows that in the twofold love of God and neighbour the whole of the Law is present and carried out. Thus in communion with Christ, in a faith that creates charity, the entire Law is fulfilled. We become just by entering into communion with Christ who is Love. We shall see the same thing in the Gospel next Sunday, the Solemnity of Christ the King. It is the Gospel of the judge whose sole criterion is love. What he asks is only this: Did you visit me when I was sick? When I was in prison? Did you give me food to eat when I was hungry, did you clothe me when I was naked? And thus justice is decided in charity. Thus, at the end of this Gospel we can almost say: love alone, charity alone. But there is no contradiction between this Gospel and St Paul. It is the same vision, according to which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity. And charity is the fulfilment of communion with Christ. Thus, we are just by being united with him and in no other way. 
At the end, we can only pray the Lord that he help us to believe; really believe. Believing thus becomes life, unity with Christ, the transformation of our life. And thus, transformed by his love, by the love of God and neighbour, we can truly be just in God's eyes.
This is really quite a fine exposition. Differences between the Pope's theology and that of heirs of the Reformation remain, to be sure. I would have articulated the matter differently in spots. But those differences that remain are hardly fatal differences. And, I dare say, many of us Protestants could learn something about the necessary manifestation of our faith in the acts of love that will, as Paul himself says (to say nothing of Jesus) be adjudicated on the last day.

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