The incomplete world-tilting gospel of Dan Phillips, part 3

Wed, 05/10/2011 - 19:26

The modern gospel is the product of an excessive theological preoccupation with the salvation of the individual. It has led generally to the eclipse of scripture as historical narrative—see part 1 and part 2 of this review. But Dan Phillips’ book also illustrates another problem that arises when the defence of dogmatic tradition is elevated above biblical interpretation: Paul’s argumentation gets bent out of shape.

Justification needs straightening out

Not surprisingly The World-Tilting Gospel includes a staunch defence of the doctrine of justification. The debate is obviously a complex one, but to my mind two issues stand out.

The first issue is that there seems to me to be some confusion in this chapter between the reckoning (logizomai) of righteousness and the crediting of righteousness. Phillips makes the point, rightly, that justification is not about making someone righteous but about declaring someone to be righteous; but at the same time he speaks of a “great transfer” or crediting of righteousness from one person’s account to another’s—that is, Christ’s righteousness is transferred to the undeserving believer.

Faith, then, is not a human work. Faith is the God-ordained instrument of receiving the gift of perfect righteousness, credited to our accounts before God. Through faith alone, God considers us as righteous.

On what basis? How can God regard the guilty as righteous? We have already seen it: because of Jesus Christ fulfilling all righteousness, then standing in our stead to receive the wrathful justice due our sins. Our sins are debited to Him; His righteousness is credited to us. (144)

Reformed theology gets itself in a mess over this issue because it feels obligated to insist on the complete depravity of humanity and to ascribe absolutely everything to do with salvation—including faith—to God. But in such an extreme state of theological anxiety it is very easy to miss the whole point of what Paul is saying in Romans 4 and elsewhere.

What he says in Romans 4 is really very simple: it is that people are counted as righteous because they believe or trust or have faith. That’s pretty much all there is to it.

Phillips lists a number of places where logizomai is used and says, “These verses speak of the imputation of righteousness through faith alone, apart from works”; and he asserts that imputation means the crediting of an amount to a person’s account (142-43).

But this is misleading. Romans 4:11, admittedly, speaks of righteousness being reckoned to the uncircumcised, but this is really just another way of making the more fundamental point, which is that “faith is counted as righteousness” (4:5, 22). Faith is reckoned to them as righteousness, therefore righteousness is reckoned to them. The basic paradigm is given in the story about Abraham. Abraham did not work, he believed, who had pistis—in fact, he believed the promise that he would have descendants. That act of belief, which is something that Abraham did, was reckoned or counted to him as righteousness. It was the right thing to do. There is no suggestion that righteousness is a commodity that has to be transferred from one account to another.

Similarly, in Philippians 3:8-9 Paul repudiates any justification that might come through obedience to the Law and expresses his desire to be counted righteous on the basis of his trust in Jesus, which means concretely to share in his eschatological sufferings and death in the hope of attaining the resurrection from the dead (3:10-11).

The second, and more general issue, has to do with how Paul’s argument about justification is framed—and once we grasp this, it should be much easier to understand the first point. Paul never simply addresses the question of how sinful humanity is to be justified before a holy God, in the way that the Reformers imagined. The question always has to do with how Israel is to be justified under the prevailing eschatological conditions, which are historical conditions. This certainly has profound implications for humanity, but it is misleading to short-circuit the argument, by-passing the critical narrative structure that connects the death of Jesus with the general state of humanity.

Paul’s argument to Israel is that in the face of the impending wrath of God Torah-observance simply won’t cut it—in fact, the Law now condemns a persistently rebellious people. So how will anyone survive the coming catastrophe? The answer is found initially in Habakkuk 2:4 (cf. Rom. 1:17) and developed at length in Romans 4: those who exercise concrete trust in the story of Jesus—that is, in the precedent of his death and resurrection—will be reckoned as righteous, they will live. This is not an abstract argument about personal salvation, which is what Reformed theology has made of it. It is a historical argument about the future of a people facing eschatological crisis.

This eschatological reading of Romans is developed at greater length—and I hope more cogently—in The Future of the People of God, but see also “The historical justification of the people of God by faithfulness”. I also strongly recommend reading the exchange between John Piper and Tom Wright about justification.

Next: Don’t forget to feed the fish…

Comments

In trying to find ONE English word that would "do duty" for all the dik- words, rather than translate some as right- and others as just-, I have become increasingly convinced that the sense of the dik- words needs to be rendedered as "faithful", "faithfulness", "make faithful", etc.  I've long believed that the pist- words should be read as "trust", "trustworthy", "trustworthiness", etc.

Dana

 

Dana, I agree about the problem. I agree that the pistis group generally has more to do with trust than belief, though I doubt we can exclude belief entirely. But to translate the dik- words in terms of faithfulness would create a problem with my argument above—that for Paul faith is reckoned as righteousness. I think we have to retain some thought of being seen to be in the right, being vindicated.

Well, I'm coming at it from the angle of the trusting/loyal faithful person as the one who is vindicated/seen as one of the true people of God.  It helps me, anyhow.

I see your point - I just end up not quite in the same place :)

D.

 

I like the point that Holland makes about 'credited as righteousness' (The Divine Marriage) in Romans 4. The first use of the phrase is in relation to Abraham, and is not about righteousness and sin, but righteousness and covenant making. Abraham is regarded as belonging to God, righteous, because he believes, or has faith, that God will do what He has promised (and therefore God can work out his covenant purposes through him).

This fits the context of Genesis 15, which is about faith and covenant making. Righteousness here is about God forming a covenant with Abraham. It is about forming a relationship, (and not simply a declaration of righteousness). Universal sin may have been one of the ultimate objects of the covenant (to address the problems illustrated in Genesis 3-11), but this is not mentioned in relation to Abraham.

The second reference in Romans 4, 'credits righeousness', is in relation to David, and is explicitly to do with sin. David was already in the covenant, the issue was how his sin was to be cleared. The passage says that 'God credits righteousness apart from works' (ie apart from works of the law). Paul then goes on to address 'this blessedness', which applies to Gentiles (Abraham) as well as Jews (which David has just illustrated). For both groups, it is not dependent on (works of) the law.

To reiterate: sin is not in view in God's 'righteousness' dealings with Abraham. It is never mentioned. With David, sin is the central issue - Romans 4:6-8. Justification is therefore a term which describes relationship forming as well as declaration of righteousness in relation to sin. 

I like these discussions, even though I haven't read the book. Obviously, I come to an entirely different reading of Romans from Andrew. But I don't think I would be bound by the reformed thinking of Dan Phillips, especially the theory of imputed, or 'transferred' righteousness. This is when a theological weight is attached to the word logizomai (reckoned/credited) which is entirely unjustified. It's a simple word meaning 'counted as' (and not even in an accounting credit transfer sense). Romans 4 especially makes entirely good sense when it is taken this way.

 

"Reformed theology gets itself in a mess over this issue because it feels obligated to insist on the complete depravity of humanity and to ascribe absolutely everything to do with salvation—including faith—to God."

I don't think we get into a mess. Romans 9 seems to show there is a Potter who is sovereign. And Ephesians 2 shows we are dead, and God makes us alive, or quickens us, the sons of wrath.

We will simply have to disagree my friend. For the Reformation teachers and scholars over the years make a fairly decent arguement for the Total depravity of mankind. Especially RC Sproul, IMHO.

Don, thanks. I wouldn’t actually disagree that we are “totally depraved” as Sproul defines it, though I think the terminology is unfortunate. But I don’t see how that makes it necessary to deny that trust is something that we do. Abraham did something. He trusted, he believed, and that was counted as a righteous thing to do. Paul was convinced that doing the Law would not save Israel from destruction, but he didn’t call them to do nothing. He called them to trust in the precedent of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Does he ever say anything to the effect that faith “is not a human work”, as Dan maintains? That seems to derive from an alien theological presupposition

To be able to trust is from a heart that is tender. God makes a sinful heart receptive, and His grace is 100% glorified. Surely this faith we have from our Father is a gift, and is ours as well. But no one would believe if we are left to ourselves. God's chosen are in His eternal heart. This is the great mystery of our Lord. For me, at least it is. Why have mercy on such a wretch as me.

 

John Newton: "I believe our hearts are all alike, destitute of every good, and prone to every evil. Like money from the same mint, they bear the same impression of total depravity: but grace makes a difference, and grace deserves the praise. ....Our righteousness is in Him, and our hope depends, not upon the exercise of grace in us, but upon the fulness of grace and love in Him, and upon His obedience unto death."

Hmm… I was hoping for a quote from the apostle Paul rather than from John Newton, fine man though he was.

" What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills."-Paul

Have a terrific Lord's day my friend! May our Savior pour out His greatest blessings upon you and your family. Amen.

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