N. T. Wright and Divine Narcissism

wrightI was struck by a paragraph in N. T. Wright’s new book on justification that reveals a stark difference between the perspective of Wright and that of John Piper. The passage appears in the midst of Wright’s argument against Piper’s belief that the righteousness of God should be defined as God’s concern for His own glory. I will quote Wright at length and then add some of my own reflections:

‘There is a sense in which what Piper claims about “God’s righteousness” could be seen as going in exactly the wrong direction. He sees it as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative love—God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else. Of course, this too will redound to God’s glory because God, as the Creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely. And of course there are plenty of passages where God does what he does precisely not because anybody deserves it but simply “for the sake of his own name.” But “God’s righteousness” is regularly invoked in Scripture, not when God is acting thus, but when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people. The tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosynÄ“ theou, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God’s own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God’s creative, healing, restorative love. God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel, and an undeserving world. That is the sort of God he is, and “God’s righteousness” is a way of saying, Yes, and God will be true to that character.’ –Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, pp. 70-71

Wright’s main point in this section is to show why he thinks Piper’s definition of the righteousness of God is off-base. We can boil down Wright’s objections in this paragraph to two points. One is biblical and the other is theological. Let me address each of these in turn.

First, Wright asserts that the scriptures do not regularly invoke God’s righteousness when God is acting “for the sake of his own name.” The main problem with this contention is that it is not accurate. God’s righteousness and His concern for His own self-exaltation are in fact linked in numerous texts of scripture. Consider, for instance, these texts.

Psalm 31:1-3
In Thy righteousness deliver me.
2 Incline Thine ear to me, rescue me quickly;
Be Thou to me a rock of strength,
A stronghold to save me.
3 For Thou art my rock and my fortress;
For Thy name’s sake Thou wilt lead me and guide me.

Psalm 143:11
For the sake of Your name, O LORD, revive me.
In Your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble.

In these two texts, the connection between God’s righteousness and His acting for His name’s sake is explicit. There are other texts, however, in which the connection is less explicit but still present. The obvious New Testament example that comes to mind is Romans 3.

Romans 3:25-26
25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26
for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

In the immediate context (vv. 21-22), it is clear that this paragraph is dealing with God’s righteousness, which is set forth in chapter 1 as the theme of the book of Romans (vv. 1:16-17). In these two verses, Paul explains that the purpose of Jesus’ death was to “demonstrate His righteousness.” God redeems sinners for the purpose of manifesting something about Himself. In the cross, God is exalting His own righteousness and showing that He is both just and justifier. In other words, God is magnifying Himself (and in particular His own righteousness) in Christ’s redemptive work. God is doing the polar opposite of what sinful humanity does in verse 2:24 (“the name of God is blasphemed”). He is exalting the glory of His own name through the cross which in turn demonstrates His righteousness.

I have only three texts here, and I think I could marshal some more. But isn’t the point already clear? God’s righteousness and His doing things for the sake of His name are connected in scripture.

Second, Wright says that God would be guilty of “divine narcissism” if God were only ever concerned with doing things “for the sake of his own name.” While it makes for good rhetoric, I don’t think that invoking the term “divine narcissism” is all that helpful in terms of theological analysis. We get our word “narcissism” from Greek mythology, but the term’s meaning in common parlance is “inordinate fascination with oneself.” But the Bible teaches that it is not possible for God to be inordinately fascinated with Himself; nor is it possible (as the myth goes) for God to be so enraptured with the reflection of His own image that it becomes a vice.

The sum of the Bible’s teaching is that God is the only being for whom self-exaltation is not a vice, but a virtue. That God would exalt the beauty of His own perfections for others to admire is the essence of love. That is why you have texts in the scripture that express God’s jealousy concerning His own worship and glory: “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8). Only with God is self-exaltation a virtue, since He is the first and best of beings, the only One who can satisfy the soul. When sinful humans exalt themselves, it is not loving because it is a distraction from the One who truly can meet the deepest needs of fallen humanity. It is a vice for sinful people to call others to admire them and so to distract them from admiring God. God is love. Therefore He must exalt Himself so as to draw people into worship. This is not narcissistic because it is no vice for Him to exalt the beauty of His own perfections for His creatures’ enjoyment and blessing.

And herein is the problem with Wright’s argument. Wright says, ” God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God . . . is always giving out, pouring out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel, and an undeserving world.” Here Wright does not speak of God’s God-centeredness as a virtue in itself but as a potential vice that has to be balanced out by His othercentered acts of grace.

This kind of analysis is wrong-headed for a couple of reasons. First, as I stated above, God is the only being for whom self-exaltation is not a vice but a virtue. Second, Wright misses the connection that the Bible draws between God’s God-centeredness and His gracious redemptive acts. God’s grace and His God-centeredness are not impulses in God that are opposed to one another. On the contrary, the one is a means by which the other comes about. God’s redemptive work in Christ is the means by which God exalts the glory of His own grace. This is precisely the connection drawn by texts like Ephesians 1, which says that God blesses us with every spiritual blessing “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Ephesians 1:6).

I am not totally convinced the John Piper’s definition of God’s righteousness is correct. I think that God’s concern for His own glory is rightly understood as an implication of His righteousness, not a definition of it. That being said, Piper is absolutely right about God’s priority of exalting His own name for the enjoyment of all people. And Piper is also right to see the biblical and theological connections between God’s glory and His righteousness. I think Wright has missed it on this point, and his book is the weaker for it.

28 Responses to N. T. Wright and Divine Narcissism

  1. D.J. Williams March 20, 2009 at 11:34 am #

    Hmmm – I’m not sure that Wright is saying Piper’s view makes God a divine narcissist, but that it can have that appearance if we don’t give a full picture – the picture of a God who works for his glory through his great love. Surely we’ve all heard that complaint from skeptics – Piper’s had to answer it more than most. Wright’s remarks don’t seem much different than a lenghtier version of Piper’s “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.” Why are we satisfied? Because of his great love for us, demonstrated in his showering us in the glories of his grace.

    I guess I just read Wright in this quote as saying that while God’s glory is his chief concern, we need to see the full picture of how that concern manifests itself. Perhaps I’m mistaken, though, not having read the book.

  2. John Holmberg March 20, 2009 at 12:18 pm #

    This post was laden with Greek philosophical thinking, blanket statements of “Bible says” and “Bible teaches,” and a total misunderstanding of the background for the “For my name’s sake” texts.

    God is the “first and best of beings?” This implies God has a beginning and is not eternal.

    The “vice” and “virtue” differences still communicate the same message to me. Piper’s God is a God who does not give a rip about people and only cares about himself. Wright is suggesting otherwise…the true “biblical” portrayal. I’ll be honest, the way Piper and others talk about God, like all he cares about is himself and such, really makes me depressed and I don’t get the logic at all from the scriptures. The “for my name’s sake” passages are for the sake of other people. God delivers Israel for his name’s sake so the nations will know that he is Yahweh and be blessed. He doesn’t just do it to show off and “get more glory,” as if he needs anymore. I think this is a fundamental issue where I’m strongly opposed to Calvinism. The “God-centered God” is not a God who looks like Jesus Christ, the one who emptied himself and became a servant for the sake of humanity. In Christ (the image of the invisible God) we saw the embodiment of selflessness, humility, and love. With a “God-centered God” we see none of the above, because it’s always a means to an end for “his glory,” so he doesn’t just love people because they’re his creation and his children, but only for himself. That makes so much sense (not really).

    Your reasoning and logic just don’t cohere with me. It’s kind of all over the place with scattered texts from the Bible to back it up that are dripping with spiritual code language that really doesn’t mean anything to me. It just makes absolutely no sense.

    “God is love”…Surprising to see you say this. I hardly ever hear Calvinists proudly claim this attribute. It’s only about the most important one anyways.

    “I am not totally convinced the John Piper’s definition of God’s righteousness is correct.”

    OH MY GOSH!!! Mark it down, Friday, March 20, 2009, Denny Burk said he’s not sure if he agrees with something John Piper said!!!

    Did you really start reading this book thinking you would agree with anything? You had your mind made up before you even read it, and your post is the weaker for it.

  3. mike March 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm #

    actually, in both of your psalms examples, the psalmist even explicitly expects God to reach out on account of His tsedeqah – and in Hebrew, that’s what tsedeqah is, just and righteous behavior towards others.

    in the OT, people in covenant can either act righteously toward their covenant partners (and thus with “honor”) or unrighteously (and thus with “shame”). in other words, the psalmist is calling on God to act righteously, which of course will bring honor & glory to His name.

    i suspect neither wright nor piper knows anything at all about real-life covenants & covenant relationships in ANE times. they’re going at it from the wrong century (i.e. 16th)

  4. Alan K March 20, 2009 at 3:53 pm #

    The language in the scriptures you have quoted is covenantal language. God’s reputation throughout the entire Bible has to do with doing right by those that God is in relationship with. This is where Piper’s reading of the OT fails. He believes that there is a non-covenantal righteousness with God. No Hebrew could have ever even conceived of such an idea.

    We all confess that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thus, for Piper to say “Behind God’s covenant-keeping is allegiance to His glory” (p. 64 in The Future of Justification) is to simply conceptualize God in a non-Biblical way. To imagine God in some sort of static way is Plato, not Moses, not the Psalms, not Isaiah. The “sacred and infinite value of his holiness” (also p. 64) cannot ever be separated from what God does. To the Hebrews, God was not an idea. God was the one who acted, who delivered. At times, Piper’s reading of the OT makes God seem like Allah instead of the one exegeted by Jesus Christ.

  5. John Holmberg March 20, 2009 at 4:00 pm #

    Good thoughts Mike and Alan. Piper is no OT scholar, and he fundamentally misunderstands the use of the language in the OT. He isolates contextualized texts and universalizes them to form some neo-platonic view of God and a system that leaves me scratching my head.

    Most of his proof-texts for his “glory” obsession come from the OT (particularly Isaiah and the Psalms), and the more he writes, the more I am convinced that he has no idea about what’s going on there. Maybe he should take the Perspectives course or something. The language is rooted in covenant and a desire for the nations to be blessed, not because he’s obsessed with himself. Personally, I have not met an OT theologian yet who would agree with the way Piper uses these texts.

  6. mike March 20, 2009 at 5:28 pm #

    unfortunately too many pastors from my convention (SBC) have a total man-crush on piper and refuse to constructively criticize him.

  7. Daniel Doleys March 20, 2009 at 7:02 pm #

    Dr. Burke,
    While I think we would disagree on much else in this book, I do have to agree with you here. When I read this section, I wondered why Wright put this section in there at all, it does not add to his argument for the definition of the “righteousness of God” and his evidence made a clear case against Piper’s definition. This section seemed superfluous.

    I think Wright is a bit closer on the definition of “God’s righteousness” but I think that both he and Piper define it by some sort of application as you suggested.

    I like Ken Schenck’s: “God’s propensity to be faithful to His relationship with His people and the world” This seems better to me, while the Abrahamic covenant is the main avenue of God expressing His righteousness and it is certainly the context in which Paul is applying it in Rom and Gal, there are too many texts that do not talk about God’s righteousness in a explicit covenantal framework.

  8. Adam Omelianchuk March 20, 2009 at 7:33 pm #

    I find the phrase “the God-centeredness of God” to be confused and strange. It is it not a pious form of saying “the self-centeredness of God?”

    One aspect of Piper’s theology I have always found a bit weird is that he thinks that if God does not exalt himself he would be an idolater. But is God the kind of being that is necessarily a “worshiper?”

  9. Denny Burk March 20, 2009 at 9:02 pm #

    Adam,

    I think that’s an astute observation. I deliberately avoided the term “self-centeredness of God” because “self-centered” typically carries a negative connotation that I do not intend.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  10. jeff miller March 20, 2009 at 11:25 pm #

    Wow, I am impressed with the comments on this post in general, Denny, especially those of D.J., Mike, and Alan K. While I recognize and embrace the logic and theological correctness of what you are saying about God and His glory I also noticed along with D.J. Williams that you seem to stretch Wright’s statements just a bit to make them more strongly disagree with what you are saying.

    for some reason I still think that some clarity is offered through translating the “dikaios” word goup with “legitimate” either as a noun or verb. The god of Abraham and the god and father of Jesus Christ is the legitimate god and he has chosen to put his legitimacey on display by rescuing His people and His creation in Jesus Christ. And all those who oyally recognize Him, He counts as legitimate!
    -Jeff

  11. jeff miller March 20, 2009 at 11:27 pm #

    loyally

  12. Darius T March 21, 2009 at 12:10 am #

    What astounds me most is that people who profess to be Christians can actually believe that people are worth more to God than His own glory. Simply put, your God is way too man-centered! It’s scary what will become of the Church if that belief becomes widespread…

  13. John Holmberg March 21, 2009 at 12:55 am #

    Darius,

    I really don’t understand what you’re talking about.

    When we speak of “glory,” we’re honestly using a very missional term. Glory, as I’ve heard it defined, is the visible manifestation of the perfection and magnificence of God. When we say we seek to “glorify” God, what we’re saying is we want to make him known, make him manifest. It is not synonymous with “worship” or “praise,” as I believe some think it to be, it is closer to something like what our concept of evangelization or something like that is. If by “glorify” we mean to make God known, then who do we make him know to? We make him known to other people! So my point is that saying we live to glorify God, or that God wants to glorify himself, is honestly about the most others-centered statement one could possibly make!

    What astounds me is how people can misunderstand the concept of “glory,” and think it’s some ethereal and platonic concept that is God’s only concern. He may be concerned about it, but it’s for the sake of his creation, not solely for himself. It’s for the sake of love, for relationship, that he seeks to bring glory to his name and does things “for his name’s sake.”

    Personally, I don’t like the term “man-centered” because of the negative connotations the reformed camp has brought to it. I prefer to see myself as God-centered AND people-centered. Calvinists neglect one great commandment at the expense of the other, while we should be holding both in tension. It frightens me when I look at what the church is becoming because of our exclusive “God-centered” and “glory” rhetoric, because it neglects our brothers, the least of these, etc. It makes people look like a means to get more “glory points” as opposed to loving them unconditionally. I can’t begin to tell you how much that frightens me, and the things I have heard and observed over the years because of this zeal that Piper and his cam fester with this line of thinking.

  14. Darius T March 21, 2009 at 10:28 am #

    John, you badly need to read Piper’s Desiring God. Once you do, I would hope you could stop misrepresenting the other side.

  15. John Holmberg March 21, 2009 at 10:38 am #

    Darius,

    I read it. I also read his “When I Don’t Desire God” (which was essentially the same…all his books are the same if you ask me). I’ve read Piper, I’ve listened to Piper…I don’t know what else to do.

    Can you tell me how I misrepresented the other side? Can you tell me what you disagree with in my post that makes it so “badly misrepresented”?

  16. Darius T March 21, 2009 at 5:27 pm #

    “all his books are the same if you ask me”

    That’s mostly true. 🙂 Pretty much all of his books are applying his Christian Hedonism concept (actually, it’s more Jonathan Edwards’ idea and repackaged by Piper) to different areas of life.

    “Calvinists neglect one great commandment at the expense of the other”

    This is one of the most ignorant and badly misrepresenting statements I’ve ever read. It is certainly not true of the big Calvinists like Carson, Piper, and Sproul. And it is certainly not true of most of the regular Calvinist laity walking the streets. You’ve read Piper, but you haven’t understood, which is clear by the statement above.

    “It frightens me when I look at what the church is becoming because of our exclusive “God-centered” and “glory” rhetoric, because it neglects our brothers, the least of these, etc.”

    Reread the “Love” chapter in Desiring God. One could never say what you said there and have accurately read that chapter. If one focuses on God’s glory as our ultimate purpose, the out-flowing result is love for others. Don’t love God, you can’t love others. It’s impossible.

  17. John Holmberg March 22, 2009 at 7:49 pm #

    Darius,

    I know and understand that a Calvinist would not agree with me saying that sentence. I was only saying that in their rhetoric, and (honestly) many times actions, this is what I perceive to be the case. They’re all “GOD GOD GOD” and loving people are an afterthought.

    I mean, you honestly want to talk about misrepresentation? Arminians (and all non-reformed) are misrepresented by reformed people horribly. Everybody who is not reformed is Pelagian, man-centered, and works salvation. It absolutely amazes me. I was just perusing some of Denny’s past blog posts and ran across one where he talked about Arminianism being “man-centered.” That’s about the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard. Some of the most “God-centered” and most Christ-like people I know are more Arminian in their theology. To despise them and call them “man-centered,” with the implication that they don’t think God is sovereign or they don’t focus on God, is completely ludicrous. Calvinists use that rhetoric and it leads me to believe they don’t care about people, and I hope it’s easy to see why. We need both in tension, hence, I’m man-centered and God-centered. There are two great commandments, not one. To pride yourself on being “God-centered” is nothing short of Pharisaical and creates a false piety that is an excuse to live a passive life and not work with those on the fringe of society.

  18. mike March 22, 2009 at 10:10 pm #

    well, i was checking back here to see if dr. burk had any responses to the above posts (including my own) that piper doesn’t understand the ANE concept of covenant relationships, and how glory is often (though not always) a dynamic of the honor-dishonor elements that come from showing covenant faithfulness or covenant unfaithfulness. not yet i suppose

  19. Darius T March 22, 2009 at 10:33 pm #

    John, one has to be God-centered first and foremost if one is going to be able to love others. And loving God is not a means to the end of loving people, it IS the end. BUT, from it flows love for other people. One cannot love other people if they don’t love God. So it stands to reason that one should figure out how to love God first (especially since He commands it first).

    God is not man-centered. He does everything for His own glory, and nothing for our glory or interests that doesn’t support His glory. If He did everything out of interest for man, then no one would go to hell, no one would be “objects of wrath,” destined to eternal punishment. God is love, true. But He only loves that which is pure and holy and righteous. And nothing is more of all of those than Himself. From what the Bible tells us, He created this world to better show His creation (both angels and mankind) just how glorious He is.

  20. mike March 23, 2009 at 10:08 am #

    darius t,

    i understand what you’re saying, but surely you would agree that God loves the world, which is definitely not “pure and holy and righteous.” he also loves sinners who will never come to faith, and i know He loves me when i am behaving “pure and holy and righteous.”

    piper’s overall theology doesn’t seem to account for these truths. he doesn’t account for God’s love of those who will never come to faith, those who aren’t children of God but are still part of the world God loves and to which He sent His Son.

  21. Darius T March 23, 2009 at 10:57 am #

    “he also loves sinners who will never come to faith, and i know He loves me when i am [not?] behaving “pure and holy and righteous.””

    Scriptural support please. This may be true, but I’m interested in knowing where you find this in the Bible. God doesn’t love me when I’m bad (or good) because He loves everyone… He loves me because He doesn’t see me, He sees the Blood of the Lamb and Christ in my place. Psalm 11 tells us that God hates the wicked with His soul.

  22. Wesley E. March 23, 2009 at 2:44 pm #

    Darius, but Christ took your place because while we were still sinners he loved us.

    “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” -Rom 5:8

    If God only loves people after faith then this passage doesn’t make any sense.

  23. Tom Fuerst March 23, 2009 at 4:42 pm #

    And I’m always amazed that people quote the hatred passages from the Psalms – THEY’RE POETRY! In their very nature they’re given to hyperbole!! Genre is the first key ingredient to proper exegesis.

  24. Tom Fuerst March 23, 2009 at 4:50 pm #

    I was also thinking of the end of Matthew chapter 5 where Jesus commands us to love our enemies precisely b/c that’s God’s character – God sends rain on the just and the unjust. His divine perfection sees fit to love his enemies.

    And, more to the point I thin John was making, if in Matt. 5 our ethical actions are based on God’s character, inasmuch as we deny that God loves his enemies, then we also will justify ourselves in not loving our enemies. Our ethics and our understanding of God are inseparable – thus, when God’s love for sinners is put on the back burner, so too is our love.

    Just some thoughts.

  25. Adam Omelianchuk March 23, 2009 at 5:12 pm #

    Romans 5:8?

  26. Darius T March 23, 2009 at 5:36 pm #

    Yeah, that’s a good one. I’m no theologian, so my ability to address this particular point is limited. I’ll have to think about that.

  27. Tom Fuerst March 23, 2009 at 5:56 pm #

    I’m not sure why I was moderated, but here’s my second attempt…

    Matthew 5 suggests that b/c God loves his enemies, so too should we. He sends rain on the just and the unjust.

    Since Jesus’ point is particularly ethical and theological, it suggests that inasmuch as we deny God’s love for the unjust (who may or may not ever believe), we will also deny our ethical responsibilities to love them, turn the other cheek, or demonstrate genuine hospitality toward them.

  28. Daryl March 25, 2009 at 12:05 pm #

    I believe the Scriptures teach us that all of creation is man centered. All of God’s glory is man centered. Our focus becomes clearer when we realize that the man is Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. It was Christ in whose image we were created, male and female. The one flesh union of Christ and his bride, is a union that cannot be broken. To think of God’s Glory apart from Christ and His work is unbiblical and dangerous.

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