Monday, April 19, 2010

Canonical Jesus vs. Historical Jesus

The canonical Jesus is making a come back while interest in waning in the historical Jesus. Evidence of this (1) The Wright vs. Hays engagement at the 2008 SBL in Boston and the 2010 Theology conference in Wheaton; (2) Scot McKnight's recent article in Christianity Today with responses by N.T. Wright, Craig Keener, and Darrell Bock; and (3) Dale C. Allison writing two books on Jesus that reshape his understanding of the Jesus Quest. I intend to address this issue more thoroughly in a couple of years when I get into my New Covenant Theology, but let me make two observations:

1. We still need the historical. Today I read John Piper's T4G sermon, which all in all ain't a bad exposition, especially if understood as a Reformed theological reading of Luke 18:9-14 and a forthright attempt to find unity between Paul and Jesus. However, there are elements of Piper's sermon that left me gobsmacked. Consider the following remarks from Piper:

So I am starting where R. C. Sproul left off in his message to us yesterday. And I consider this message as an exegetical extension and defense of what he said: “If you don’t have imputation, you don’t have sola fide (faith alone), and if you don’t have sola fide, you don’t have the gospel.” And my goal is to argue that Jesus preached the gospel of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, understood as the imputation of his righteousness through faith alone.

First, a word about method. One of my goals in this message is to fire you up for serious lifelong meditation on the four Gospels as they stand. I am so jealous that you not get sidetracked into peeling away the so-called layers of tradition to find the so-called historical Jesus. I want you to feel the truth and depth and wonder that awaits your lifelong labor of love in pondering the inexhaustible portraits of Jesus given us by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

I confess that I am primary a Gospels scholar and not a Paul-man. I've done work on the historical Jesus, the Gospel of Mark in particular, and made forays into Paul as well in light of those studies. So I have to confess that it defies a straight forward reading of the Gospels to say that Jesus preached his own imputed righteousness. I don't think Paul preached imputation if Acts is anything to go by. At best, imputation is theological corollary of Paul's understanding of union with Christ (that's Leon Morris talking!). To be honest, even if Jesus did preach the imputation of his own righteousness, I doubt that anyone until John Calvin would have had the foggiest idea what he was talking about. This reading emerges if one believes or (more properly) practices the view that the context in which Jesus is best understood is 16th century Geneva or 19th century Princeton. I submit that the WCF and LBC 1689 are not the contexts for understanding Jesus' proclamation of a gospel. Rather, I would say that Isa. 52.7, Ps. Sol. 11.1-7, 4Q521, and the Priene inscription help us to understand what Jesus and the Evangelists meant by "gospel". When I read Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:16-21; Matt 24:14, imputation does not come to my mind or to the the mind of any ancient Gospel commentary that I know of. Jesus' "gospel" is Isaianic not Calvinistic (and this is coming from a Calvinist!). What is more, Piper rules out of bounds the tools that would falsify what he has said. Piper is right, the church's Jesus is not the Jesus of tradition-history (i.e., excavated beneath layers of "faith and theology" and devoid of anything of interest to Christians), but the (historical) Jesus that should interest us is the one who make sense in the context of first century Palestine. I've made similar warnings in my article "The Perils of Modernizing Jesus and the Crisis of Not Contemporizing the Christ," EQ 78 (2006). If Piper's Jesus is canonical, then Matthew becomes a Gospel of straw! I would also point out that in the history of the church you'll be hard pressed to show how the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ was part of the universal church's confession of faith (yes I know about Epistle of Diognetus 9.1-5, but I don't think it's saying quite as much as some folks would like it to say). Piper's Jesus, on this point about imputation, is a construct conducive to a particular hermeneutical community, but it is neither canonical, nor catholic, nor historical. Piper is setting off on a noble task of trying to show the parity of Jesus and Paul when it's all the rage to drive them apart. The problem is that rather than showing that Paul was a faithful follower of Jesus, he seems to make Jesus an advocate of a theologically freighted reading of Paul (for a better effort on this task I recommend the work of David Wenham).

2. Even canonical folks need the historical. Before we abandon the historical for the canonical (and feel free to make canonical an adjective to any subject that you like - Jesus, Paul, early church, etc.), everyone still pleads the historical at some point. Note that Luke Timothy Johnson was advocating the canonical Jesus over and against the historical Jesus long before it became fashionable again. However, I would point out that Johnson is very set on a historical reading of Luke-Acts. He rejects attempts to loosen the hypen between Luke-Acts when it is claimed that the two where never really read together in the early church. In the reception of Acts, Acts was ordinarily read with the Apostolos (Catholic Letters) and the Praxaapostolic (Paul, Catholic Leters, Acts). But Johnson appeals to the authorial intent and original audience of Luke-Acts that read them together, that is, he concerns himself with the historical situation of the original composition and dissemination of Luke-Acts.

In sum, the relationship between the canonical, historical, and catholic (= reception-history) Jesus is a future area of research for some brave soul!


davecbailey said...


Daniel said...

Dr. Bird,
First of all, Wow! Spot on! Your commentary and interpretive explanations never cease to amaze me.

Second, if the author of SROG is not a Paul-man I do not know if anyone is.

By the way, will you be seeking royalties from Dr. Vanhoozer...?

Andrew Faris said...


Have you missed Piper's comments on method here at all? It seems to me that his point about the historical Jesus is not so much that we ought to throw it out in our quest to understand Jesus, but that we ought to take the text at its word, rather than try to find layers in the text, etc.

And don't you agree with that much?

I actually loved this sermon all in all, in particular the exposition of the parable. The real surprising thing about those introductory comments about method is that they are directed at seminary a conference in Louisville.

Right, Dr. Piper, cause a lot of those students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary are really just getting so caught up peeling away layers of Gospel tradition rather than meditating on the text itself...

Andrew Faris
Christians in Context

MrErr said...

I was at Wheaton and thought that Hays made a very strong argument for getting back to the Canonical Jesus. I think eventually both the Canonical and the Historical Jesus need to meet or end up with the same Jesus. Also from Edith Humphrey's talk, i should add that the Jesus of tradition too needs to look the same as. Maybe a better way to put it all together is that Canon should be primary and our test for if our understanding of the Canon is right is to make sure it does not contradict history or tradition.

Geoff said...

Faris: (This is Trey's friend, Geoff, from Texas by the way)Taking the text of Luke 18 at its word means doing just that, and plain and simply, there is no word in that passage for imputation. There is a word for a verdict passed. There is also no context in Luke or Acts to make that story mean "imputation" or more pertinent, to make that story mean "imputation is the gospel." On Piper's view it frequently seems like the failure to be explicit on the doctrine of imputation is a failure to say the gospel...this excludes most of the bible from teaching the gospel.

Brad Haggard said...

This sounds like the return of fideism, but not quite as robust as Barth. Over here in the United States YEC is taking that stand more and more.

I just don't see how you can rightly interpret the canonical texts without situating them historically. It becomes a contemporary proof-text.

Frederik Mulder said...

I was struck by the interesting suggestion Hayes made that Barth and Wright should have a talk.... What I found lacking in Hays' comments about Barth was the fact that he did not differentiate between the "early" and "later" Barth. In the wake of Bultmann's existentialism, Barth's earlier dialectical theology did move towards a more nuanced position on "history".But his "early" and dialectical work was clearly (or almost certainly?)a-historical.

jesse said...


Though I can see where you’re coming from in light of the quote from Piper that you cite, your critique of Piper seems to me a bit harsh/unfair in light of what he actually says in the whole of the sermon. His opening thesis aside, you make it sound like he’s quoting from the WCF and Calvin as his main expositional points on Luke 18. In actuality Piper makes a valid attempt of using the gospel of Luke itself to undergird what we usually deem a “Pauline” theology. Only once in the whole sermon does Piper mention any Pauline texts. On the other hand, he makes a concerted effort to do the very opposite of what you accuse him of doing by establishing an argument that is derived from Luke’s gospel itself. First he shows that the whole gospel is meant to be read in the light of Christ’s cross/resurrection (Lk 2:10, 22:20). Second, he shows that Jesus’ most explicit claim to be the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is found in Luke 22:37 (citing Isa 53:12, which is immediately preceded by 53:11’s mention of ‘counting righteous’). Third, he draws on a couple other Lukan passages in close proximity to 18:9-14 to support the notion that law-keeping is insufficient for righteousness—namely, 17:10’s mention of the unworthy servants, and 18:18-21 discussion regarding the young rich young ruler who kept all the commandments from his youth yet still lacked righteousness before God. Fourth, the rest of the sermon is, of course, focused on Lk 18:9-14 itself.

I hardly think Piper is trying to persuade anyone that Jesus would have used the word “imputation.” Rather his point is that the Jesus taught that we must trust not in ourselves (Lk 18:9) but in he himself and his work on our behalf for our right standing with God. And Piper’s saying, “Well, what do you know, that’s not so far from Paul after all, is it?” Do you find it so unconscionable that Jesus could have taught that? Would such a simple message be as “foggy” as you claim?

Further, you say that “Piper rules out of bounds the tools that would falsify what he has said.” I’m not sure why you say that. The “tools” which Piper uses—and indeed, which he would no doubt encourage any potential ‘falsifiers’ to use—are the canonical gospels, precisely the source from which he exhorted us to gain the truest understanding of Jesus (in the passage you cite). If you are saying that Piper is importing a later doctrine into the mouth of Jesus/the Evangelists, then wouldn't the canonical gospels alone be sufficient to falsify his claims?


Donald said...

I listened to the whole sermon and came away a bit confused. The Pharisee's spiritual condition was not a function of trusting, in fact, in the fruit. There was no fruit. He was not justified with God. To make "I thank you God..." bear the weight of meaning this man was a man standing in grace seems to heavy a load. For Piper's point to stand, the Pharisee would have actually have had to mean that as Paul would have meant it, and that would have indicated that the man was genuinely a child of God. The point of the passage is that he was not. I think all this passage proves is that one man was actually trusting in grace and the other was not.

Michael F. Bird said...

I'm genuinely trying to be sympathetic to Piper. I have no problems with his summary of implications understood as general statements on what the NT says about salvation, and I applaud his efforts to read the Gospels canonically rather than critically. But there are several problems: (1) Consider his statement: "Jesus taught the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone on the basis of an imputed righteousness, not an inherent righteousness that God works in us." As an exegete, I just don't know how to deal with that because it's affirming stuff that I know is patently false. Jesus didn't teach about imputed righteousness, not in Luke 18, not anywhere. These texts won't carry the freight that Piper attributes to them. Luke 22.37 even in light of Isa 53.11-12 is not saying exactly what Paul says in Romans 4 etc. I don't find them contradictory, but they are saying different things about salvation. (2) The way this is worded also subordinates Jesus to (Piper's understanding of) Paul. Surely it's better to ask if Paul preached Jesus' gospel than vice-versa. I think Piper would agree, but that is what he should have said. (3) But what if Isa 52.7 or 4Q521 (rather than Phil. 3.7-9) is the proper parallel to understand Jesus' gospel? What if Jesus' gospel was about a new exodus than an imputed righteousness? Should we be interested in what the word "gospel" meant to Jews and Christians in the Graeco-Roman world? Can our canonical reading also be contextually situated and can we place the text in the world of Jesus and the first readers of the Gospels? I fear that Piper is trying to eliminate historical study of Jesus and Paul because it can potentially falsify a paradigm that he's using in reading the NT. That's the real danger as I see it.

John Thomson said...

I am an admirer of Piper. However, I find it astonishing and troubling that he is so bent on making IAO integral to orthodoxy.

That Christ is our righteousness no orthodox Christian would disagree: that this must be construed in terms of IAO is something different altogether. The trouble is, if evangelical voices do not speak up and resist this particular brand of Reformed packaging, it will gain an unhelpful theological hegemony.

So Michael, thanks for comments, especially since your sympathies may lie with IAO.

PokCalaway0710 said...


Edwin Tay said...

Dear Michael,
in your judgment, under what circumstances in our exegesis of Scriptural texts are we able to employ terms like imputation, or trinity, or the Spirit's personality, etc., terms which for a very long time has been employed in the exegetical history of the church?

As a New Testament exegete who is well aware of what is entailed in idea of imputation, how would you expound imputation, or will you at all?

A. B. Caneday said...

An earlier shorter delivery of the message may be found here: This Man Went Down to His House Justified. On the earlier version I expressed some concerns here.

Jason B. Hood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason B. Hood said...

ABC, that's interesting take on the main theme of that passage.

Mike's predecessor in NT at Highland Theological College was a very conservative Reformed chap (Free Church) named Alistair Wilson; I think all parties would easily agree that Ali is more conservative than Piper in most respects. There's a good article on this passage by Ali at the HTC website,
The variety of uses of "righteous/ness" in Luke on page 2 alone is worth the download.
On the one hand he can cite Jeremias to the effect that this lines up with Paul's gospel. "The language which Luke employs here bears a strong similarity to Pauline discussion of justification. Jeremias comments, ‘Our passage is the only one in the Gospels in which the verb dikaioun is used in a sense similar to that in which Paul generally uses it.’ While we should be wary of reading the fully developed Pauline concept of justification into Luke’s narrative here, we may nonetheless say with Jeremias that this passage shows ‘that the Pauline doctrine of justification has its roots in the teaching of Jesus.’"

On the other hand, there's no effort by Ali to find imputed alien righteousness in this text, because it is not the main point off this text, nor is it here.

He mentions "the vital connection between the parable and Luke’s explanation of the point of the parable. Here is one who truly ‘despises others’ (cf. 23:11)." Most importantly, in Greek the request is not for imputed righteousness but for hilasterion (the imptv atone/propitiate is used by the sinner in his prayer).

With no appeal for alien righteousness, bur rather a simple plea to have one's sins covered, this chap goes away righteous. The religious man who did not seek God's mercy, which is required for all sinners, failed and was unjustified, trusting in his own righteousness (whether God-worked as Piper claims or not as ABC notes).

The need for atonement/propitiation is the point of this passage, not imputation of righteousness for sinners. I think it's exegetically unwise to claim more for it.

John Thomson said...

It would be historically unwarranted to read into these utterances the whole doctrine of
the imputed righteousness of Christ. It was impossible for Jesus to develop this doctrine
with any degree of explicitness, because it was to be based on his own atoning death,
which still lay in the future. Our Lord speaks of a state of righteousness before God to be
conferred as a part of the coming kingdom. How far this will be done by imputation, how
far it will also be done by changing the heart and life of men so as to produce works
which God will be able in principle to approve in his judgment, which of these two will
be the basis of the other is not clearly explained. Our Lord’s doctrine is the bud in which
the two conceptions of a righteousness imputed and a righteousness embodied in the
sanctified life of the believer still lie enclosed together. Still it should not be overlooked,
that in more than one respect Jesus prepared the way for Paul by enunciating principles to
which the latter’s teaching could attach itself. He emphasized that in the pursuit of
righteousness the satisfaction of God should be man’s supreme concern. This, carried out
to its ultimate consequences with reference to sinful man, could not but lead to the
conception of a righteousness provided by God himself in the perfect life and atoning
death of Christ. F F Bruce on Luke 18.

John Thomson said...


Correction FF Bruce on Luke 18 quoting G Vos

Derek said...

Nice post; indeed the difficulty in putting all three together is both absolutely necessary and unfortunately very challenging. I believe this is because the Jesus of history has little to do with the Jesus of faith.