Andrew Wilson has been kind enough to write the following guest post for me. You really should get a copy of his books God Stories and Incomparable – they have been very well received. For more about the New Perspectives, and Wright in particular, there is a Sinclair Ferguson talk on the Gospel Coalition website.
I’ve noticed a puzzling trend emerging in the last year or so, in all the debates we’ve seen over the gospel. It goes like this. If a Reformed theologian writes a book defending the historic understanding of the gospel, and if someone else reads it and doesn’t like it, then the Reformed writer is accused of being ‘man-centred’, no matter how God-centred they are striving to be. It famously happened to John Piper when Tom Wright’s latest book, Justification, came out in 2009. And in January’s Christianity Magazine, rather less famously, it’s just happened to me.
It’s hard to know whether or not it’s true of my book God Stories, although I certainly didn’t mean it to be – my first book Incomparable was all about God, and on the back cover of God Stories I argue that the gospel is not primarily about me, which is why I’m writing a book about it. Having said that, sometimes people are unclear, and maybe I have been. But to say that Piper is man-centred is quite bizarre. In fact, I can’t think of any modern theologian of whom that is less true – I’ve probably read twenty of his books, and can’t remember any of them not banging on about how the glory of God is central to everything, and we are not.
Yet one of the world’s most brilliant and stimulating Christian writers, N. T. (Tom) Wright, wrote this year that he sees Piper as the equivalent of someone who thinks the sun goes round the earth (Justification, pp. 3-5), which he then explains as believing ‘the whole of Christian truth is about me and my salvation’ (p. 7). Again and again in his book, Wright repeats the analogy, insisting that ‘we are not the centre of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around him.’ All of which is beautifully, wonderfully true, of course – but it is also exactly what John Piper has been preaching, teaching and writing for nearly three decades. As reviewers like David Mathis and Doug Wilson have pointed out, this particular criticism must leave even Piper’s fiercest opponents somewhat baffled.
It might be argued that this is just an unguarded oversight from one of the world’s busiest writers, who has simply misunderstood Piper for lack of time. (As a huge fan of Wright, I really hope so.) But it may point to something else. It may be that the easiest way to attack arguments for individual justification, or imputed righteousness, is to accuse them of being man-centred – as if a message about God counting people righteous in Christ somehow made man, rather than God, the point of the story (which would be a surprise to the writer of Romans 3:26). It may be that pegging the New Perspective as ‘God-centred’ and ‘covenant-minded’ and the Old Perspective as ‘man-centred’ and ‘proof-texty’ is more likely to get it a hearing amongst evangelicals. It may be that close exegesis of Romans 4:1-8, or 5:12-21, or 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, results in unacceptably Reformed conclusions, so other approaches are needed. But as I say, I hope it’s just an oversight.
Personally, I suppose I shouldn’t have enjoyed Wright’s book. I am as Reformed as they come, I’m a lifelong Piper fan, and I’ve just been taken to task by John Drane in the UK’s Christianity for my ‘very conservative traditional evangelical understanding of the gospel’, among other things. But I have to admit: I loved Wright’s book. There were a number of problems with it – I’ll discuss a few of them in the next post, including the book’s central point, which I regard as both wrong-headed and unclear – but nonetheless, it was full of the revelation, thoughtfulness, wit and elegance that characterise his other books, and he paints God’s big picture like few others. He is a remarkable theologian.
Nonetheless, if Wright is looking for fellow theocentrists, pastors with big hearts and thinkers with big brains who prize God and his purposes above us and ours, then he should be commending Piper, even if he continues to disagree with him about justification. Galileo and Copernicus disagreed about some things, but they were together on the earth and the sun.