According to an article in the June 2009 issue of Christianity Today, N.T. Wright and John Piper recently published books on their views of the doctrine of justification. The article contains a table that summarizes some of their differences. I have not read the books, but I want to comment on both on the tone of the article and the summaries in the table.
From the content of the summaries, I can find biblical passages that would support each man’s positions. I do not find their positions to be an “either/or” situation. The tone of the article, however, implies that justification can be one thing or the other, but not both. Which reminds me of the story of blind men describing an elephant. Let me tell you my version of it.
In my story we have a very large – and very patient – elephant. The elephant’s name is Justification. Four small, blind men who have never seen an elephant are given the task of describing it. (These men represent all the saints, from Apostle Paul to John Piper and N.T. Wright, who have wrestled with understanding justification and have tried to describe it.)
One man is led to the front of the elephant. Another is guided half-way up a very tall step ladder that is positioned at the elephant’s shoulder. The third man is left standing near a hind leg. The fourth man is lifted to a platform behind the elephant.
The man standing in front of the elephant begins groping for the elephant. His hands are met by the elephant reaching out his trunk. He quickly catches the trunk with both hands and calls out, “The elephant is a thick muscular snake with warm, rough skin and a musky scent.”
The man on the step ladder feels an ear go by and grabs onto it in mid flap. “Oh, no,” he shouts, “an elephant is the largest, leatheriest leaf I’ve ever felt. It does have a musky smell, however.”
Meanwhile, the man near the back leg had been rubbing the leg and trying to reach around it with his arms. “Well, I can agree with you about the smell, but you are both wrong about everything else. An elephant is a very large, very stout tree trunk with bark as rough as sandpaper.”
The man at the elephant’s back end had been busy, too. He had caught hold of the elephant’s tail as it swished past him and examined it very thoroughly. He called to the others, “I think the smell is too strong to be called musk, but it is definitely a thick rope with a frayed end.”
Since we know how an elephant looks, we find this story amusing. Yet it is so easy for us to do the same thing among our denominations, or our communions, and in our theological discussions. We think that what we are observing is the only work that God is accomplishing by that effort, when God usually does multiple things simultaneously.
Wrestling with our understanding of justification and other aspects of our salvation is an important part of our spiritual growth. Discussing our thoughts in the public forum can lead to rigorous consideration of the differences and the similarities of other Christians’ positions. It can lead to all parties getting a fuller understanding of the issues.
The classic definition of justification (from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia) is this: “On the basis of Christ's atoning work, God pronounces righteous those who believe in Him even though they are unquestionably sinful and guilty in themselves.” So while we are discussing our differences let us remember something that C.S. Lewis wrote in his introduction to Mere Christianity: “…(the core of Christianity is) divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the worst divisions inside Christendom are not really comparable at all.”
Rather than expressing false doctrines, these authors are presenting different views of something we all share, if we have accepted Christ as our savior. We are all justified in Christ, even if we do not fully understand the total package. It is a good thing to remember we are brothers in Christ as we listen to each other.
So let us return to my version of the story…
The small, blind men were not only small and blind, but they were also very wise. After they told each other what they understood an elephant to be, each one explored further away from his starting point. At first, none of them discovered anything that would change his description of an elephant. Each man told the others that he held to his original opinion. As each man worked his way higher and higher, however, he fell silent. The more each one learned about the elephant, the less certain he became about the completeness of his original description. Eventually, the four men bumped into each other as they felt their way along the elephant’s broad back.
“What? Are you here, too!” they asked each other. Then they sat down on the elephant’s back, everyone agreeing that a complete and truly accurate description of an elephant was beyond their comprehension and greater than their imaginations.
As we all sit on the elephant called Justification, we struggle to understand the divine extravagance of it, all the while knowing that we, like the four blind men, may not have a complete picture of it. This brings me to a paraphrase of my favorite quote from Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. (My apology if this offends you, Mr. Pollan.)
When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like justification gives way to an arrogance in which we think we can treat God’s magnificent gift of justification as our own private property.
When our public discourse lacks humility, when we make more of our “correctness” than the other person’s “correctness”, that arrogance becomes a different elephant entirely. It becomes the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about and everyone wishes would leave.