Monday, February 9, 2009

Piper and Wright

John Piper wrote a book criticizing NT Wright's position on justification. For those interested in the debate but without the time to actually read everything Wright has written on justification (which includes anyone interested), their debate is being reviewed, and the first installment is in. It is very worthwhile, and has a rather interesting perspective on outflanking in the first paragraph:

The Hinge Upon Which All Turns

Topic: N.T. Wrights and Wrongs

In this book, N.T. Wright hopes to accomplish an "outflanking" maneuver (p. vii) in order to make much of the ongoing controversy over Paul irrelevant. And that is a great idea, if he can pull it off. Outflanking, when it works, can result in a decisive settlement. Outflanking, when it does not work, can be just another exercise in missing the point. Jeb Stuart outflanked the Union army at Gettysburg, which consisted of him riding completely around them -- while the battle was being settled elsewhere.

I should say that at the outset that Wright is vigorous in his response to Piper, but he nevertheless treats him with courtesy and respect. I have some hopes that this will wind up being a fruitful exchange at the end of the day.

What are the main "pressure points" (p. viii) according to Wright? The first has to do with the "nature and scope of salvation" (p. viii). According to Wright, the sweep of God's redemptive plan is much larger than we have a tendency to think. Wright suspects that Piper would agree with this on paper (p. viii), and I know that I do. But while there would seem to be agreement here, Wright suspects that we in the Reformed tradition have not given this insight the free rein it ought to have. "But I do not think they have yet allowed it to affect the way they think about the questions that follow" (p. viii).

The second pressure point has to do with the means of salvation. Wright states what Piper would say about this, which is that "salvation is accomplished by the sovereign grace of God, operating through the death of Jesus Christ in our place and on our behalf, and appropriated through faith alone" (p. viii). Wright agrees with this entirely, but objects with what was left out. "But there is something missing -- or rather, someone missing. Where is the holy spirit?" (p. viii). And, "part of my plea in this book is for the spirit's work to be taken seriously in relation both to Christian faith itself and to the way in which that faith is 'active through love' (Galatians 5.6)" (p. viii).

The third pressure point has to do with what the word justification actually means in Scripture. Wright and Piper agree that justification is a forensic declaration that God's people are "in the right." But "what does that declaration involve? How does it come about" (p. ix)?

"Piper insists that 'justification' means the imputation of the 'righteousness' -- the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ -- to the sinner, clothing him or her with that status from the first moment of faith to the final arrival in heaven" (p. ix).

Wright understands the force of this proposal, and why it gives such assurance to believers. He wants to get to that same kind of assurance. But he says "Paul's way of doing it is not Piper's," and Wright gives four reasons why Paul's doctrine of justification is much richer and more layered than Piper's. First, justification is about the "work of Jesus the Messiah," second, it is about the climax of the covenant made with Abraham (p. ix), third, he says it has a different lawcourt application than Piper wants to give it (p. x), and last, justification is in Paul all bound up with eschatology.

Thus far the preface. What are we to make of all this? Returning to the top, let me say how much I appreciate Wright taking the time to respond in detail to Piper. I believe it will prove to be enormously helpful. I also believe that both men are conducting a model theological disputation, over issues which they know to be of great importance to the gospel, and yet they are doing it without descending into the anathemistic distractions of ecclesiastical fighting words. If for no other reason, a well done to both.

Second, I believe that on a number of the broader contextual points Wright raises, I will be more in agreement with him, and sometimes less so with Piper. And third, notwithstanding this second point, I believe that Piper has correctly identified the hinge upon which all turns, and that Wright has somehow missed it. I will come back to this in my conclusion.

But it should be added that in places where I agree enthusiastically with Wright, it does not follow that he understands how much Piper would agree with him also. It already appears that Wright is going to be long on words that point to "emphases, omissions, appearances, and seemings." In some of these caricatures, I recognize some real people that actually do resemble them -- people who could read the Westminster Confession through a keyhole and use both eyes -- but Piper is not one of them, and there are a host of biblical, theological Reformed scholars who would agree with Piper on this "hinge," and yet who would be prepared to cheerfully grant all the broader contextual issues that Wright has brought up here.

That said, let me cycle quickly through Wright's points. The first pressure point has to do with the nature and scope of God's plan of salvation. On this point, I guess I would chide Piper with FTBP (Failure to be Postmill), but at the same time, it really appears that Wright is unfamiliar with the scope of Piper's passion for missions, and his call to "let the nations be glad." And then there are the many postmill Reformed types who agree with Piper on imputation, and with Wright on the glories to come, and so it appears that this outflanking move is really a Jeb Stuart gallop on a sunny day. I mean, I am a stand-on-the-chair-and-wave-my-hat-over-my-head postmillenialist, to use the technical phrase for it, and although this is currently a minority report, I am not uncommon in the Reformed world. And because Wright is also engaging with the Reformed tradition throughout its history, he should recognize that for most of that history, the majority of the Reformed world held to Piper's view of imputation and Wright's view of the "nature and scope of salvation." Shoot, I am such a postmillenialist that I believe the day is coming when Anglican bishops will understand economics.

His second point was the missing Holy Spirit. First, when Wright gloriously summarizes what he is arguing for (pp. 18-19), he leaves the Holy Spirit out too. You can't say everything every time. Second, Piper and the tradition he represents left the Holy Spirit out in Wright's summary of their position. They didn't leave Him out, Wright did on their behalf. Third, does Wright seriously think that the Spirit is ignored in Reformed soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology? On what basis does he say this? And last, I have to say that it really undercut his point to ask "Where is the holy spirit?" Where I come from, when you want to emphasize the personality of someone, a common courtesy that you extend is to capitalize their name. To be fair, I am informed by someone over here in the UK that this might have been the result of an editorial policy over at SPCK, but then it seems to me that Wright should be taking on the SPCK instead of Piper, who wouldn't dream of doing something as disrespectful as that. I mean, for pity's sake, if you want to urge us all to take "the spirit's work . . . seriously" then by all means do more for Him than you would for the word electricity, and don't do less for Him than you would for Ohm's Law.

The third pressure point has to do with the actual meaning of the word justification, and we will be spending a great deal of time on this in our passage through this book. But this is what is happening . . . or at least this is what it looks like to me here in the cheap seats. Wright wants to emphasize the sweep of the grand story from Abraham on. He wants, rightly, to see the history of Israel integrally involved in all of this. He wants to see the unfolding covenant. He wants the gospels to have an honored place in our telling of the gospel -- he doesn't want us to skip from Malachi to Romans. He wants to ask why (according to him) Piper and his tradition don't really get this grand sweep. This attribution of failure is not exactly accurate as I have pointed out before -- think of Fuller's The Unity of the Bible, and of Piper's relationship to Fuller.

So the hinge that I mentioned earlier is not really "why do Reformed types not see this"? The hinge is "why did Saul of Tarsus not see it?" In order for us moderns to understand the story of Israel rightly, we must understand the biography of Saul rightly. This is what Piper sees, and what Wright does not. This is the hinge upon which everything turns. And so we will return to this theme again and again.

Posted by Douglas Wilson - 2/9/2009 5:59:54 AM

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