Justification: metaphor or the real thing?

Henry Neufeld, at his Participatory Bible Study Blog, has entered the fray about John Piper’s criticism of N.T. Wright’s approach to justification. I cannot claim to understand the whole post because I have not read the chapter by Piper which it refers to (although I have read the Wright article in question). But Henry makes this interesting point in the first part of his post:

There is a fundamental assumption that Piper makes, that there is one, and only one way to understand justification. For him, justification is a fact, not a metaphor. It is the core reality. Metaphors can be used to describe it, but it is the real thing. I emphasize this repeatedly, because it underlies many of the arguments that Piper makes. For him, it would be quite inadequate to suggest that a different metaphor was in play in a different verse, and thus perhaps it might be understood differently.

This is a significant point because it brings out what I see as one of the major weaknesses in Reformed theology, alongside the reliance on tradition which I have also criticised recently.

The Bible describes various aspects of God and how he works in the world. But these are things which are fundamentally beyond adequate description in human language, as is realised by perceptive Christian thinkers. Instead, the biblical authors describe God and his works using models or metaphors, and other theologians do the same. There is often quite a variety of such metaphors, even used by the same author, for the same underlying reality. This variety should serve as a clear indication that no one description is “the real thing”, they are all metaphors.

The problem is that teachers in the Reformed tradition tend to latch on to just one of the models or metaphors and treat it as if it is “the real thing”, a precise and objective description of what is actually happening in the spiritual realm. For example, in the area of the atonement they insist that penal substitution and justification in the judicial sense are an objective reality. As Henry has pointed out, and I have in other contexts, they are not prepared to accept that these are not just one metaphor among many to describe the underlying truth about how God works.

By doing this they presume to be able to describe and define how God acts, even how he must act. This is putting God in a box, and verging on idolatry. These teachers need to read again Job chapters 38 to 41, to understand what God thinks of those who claim to understand his ways and to hear again of how much greater he is than human comprehension. Then perhaps they will learn to reply to the Lord as Job did:

“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job 42:2-6 (TNIV)

0 thoughts on “Justification: metaphor or the real thing?

  1. Peter,

    Can you point to anything in the Bible which can only be understood in one way? Is there not a danger here of adapting metaphors to suit our own predilections?

    If God has intended his word to only be undertood by metaphors which call into question underlying category structures, then I confess that I find all this rather depressing as I have no way of knowing which metaphor I should use.

  2. I have no way of knowing which metaphor I should use.

    Well, start by using the same metaphors as the Bible uses. Just realise that they don’t express the absolute truth, only one view of it adjusted to the limitations of human understanding.

  3. It seems to me that metaphor is not in opposition to reality.

    All our language about God is to some extent metaphorical. And indeed, all our language about anything is to some extent metaphorical, including both ‘like and unlike’.

    I say ‘cow’ and what I say isn’t exactly the same thing as the picture/ description/ story/ experience you conjure up in your mind. But there is enough of the ‘like’ for us to be communicating meaningfully. My word ‘cow’ refers to something real, not imaginary.

    So too with justification. of course it refers to something real. Doesn’t mean that the one word ‘justification’ refers to everything that could ever be said about the thing it refers to. But it does communicate something real, something meaningful.

    As for Piper, I think he would agree that justification does not describe everything about salvation for example. I’m sure he uses a variety of the words the bible gives us to decribe different aspects of salvation, many of them overlapping in mutually-revealing ways. This does not make his wanting to be precise about justification, or making it refer to something ‘real’ idolatrous does it? Or perhaps I have misunderstood the post?

  4. I’ve just skim-read the original post you link to Peter. I have to say, I do wonder if it doesn’t infact make the mistake of pitting covenant against imputation. I suspect Mr Neufeld would ultimately want to accuse Wright’s doctrine of justification of ‘lying’ the same way he does the reformed view.

    Wright himself even argues he’s retained the substance or function of imputation but changed the language. As I’ve said elsewhere, I understand his problem with imputation to be active obedience, or with specific imputation proof-textιng of a particular kind. At a very basic level he believes that Jesus’ righteousness is our righteousness – we share in his not guilty covental status and vindication. This sharing is by virtue of union with Christ, on the basis of which God declares (forensic concept) those who are ungodly to be covenant members.

    I’d state things a lot differently to Wright in lots of ways. And I do believe in imputed active obedience. But I think I’m right when I say that his view of justification is closer to Piper’s than it is to those views that take justification as a renovative/renewing work, simply because it is a forensic-declarative-legal-relational view of justification.

  5. Pete, I think that where you differ from me and probably from Wright is that you try to describe everything in categories from Reformed theology. You may be interested in whether Wright agrees with imputation, active obedience, forensic-declarative view etc. And I can see where you are coming from. But I am not interested in this, but only in whether he agrees with the teaching of Scripture. See also what I wrote about Sola Scriptura or Sola Traditio, an issue which is relevant not only to gender matters.

  6. Peter, I’m only interested in whether or not Wright agrees with reformed theology where I think reformed theology expresses the teaching of scripture. In actual fact, the exercise of comparing the substance of two apparently conflicting views (which is what Wright and Reformed theology are in some people’s eyes) can help clarify the scriptures. That exercise can also help us discern whether people are pitting two things against one another that in reality substantially agree over the teaching of scripture. That is a far cry from simply wanting to describe things in a particular theological language.

    Also, since the post touches on the disagreement between Piper and Wright, who, to varying degrees, see themselves as within the reformed theological stream, then discussing their agreement or disagreement in the terms of reformed theology is no bad thing, but rather addressing the very question of the debate in the language of the debate, whilst trying to see behind traditional vocabulary to meanings. Perhaps this was off the point of your original post, if so then sorry. I presumed from your interest in the Piper-Wright debate that you were interested at more than a methodological level.

    And of course, imho, forensic-declarative is not a category merely of reformed theology, it is a category of scripture. Therefore I’m not merely talking about metaphors for organising the data of scripture, but what words, phrases, ideas, etc. actually mean or do not mean.

  7. Fair enough, Pete. It is of course important to see if there is a real difference of substance between Wright and Piper, or just one of terminology and emphasis. I tend to think the latter, but then I haven’t looked at all the details.

    I might suggest that the question is open whether forensic-declarative is “a category of scripture” rather than just part of an extended metaphor. Part of the problem I am dealing with in this post is the tendency for metaphorical descriptions to be misunderstood as ontological distinctions of category. If the same reality is described in different parts of scripture with different metaphors (as arguably justification, sanctification, redemption, new birth, adoption etc are different metaphors for the same reality), it is wrong to make the metaphors into separate categories.

  8. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Metaphors We Are Saved By - or maybe not

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