Today Andrew Wilson continues his guest series on as he puts it “Wrightesousness”!
John Piper and Tom Wright are my two favourite theologians. So I feel somewhat intimidated by the prospect of explaining why I think Wright’s most recent book, Justification, despite being outstanding and inspiring in many places, hasn’t really answered Piper’s questions. If I hadn’t just written my own book arguing both for Wright’s big picture and for Piper’s view of justification and imputed righteousness, then I might be keeping my head beneath the parapet. But I have, so I’m not.
I commented in my last post on the oddity of Wright’s opening chapter about the earth going round the sun, so I won’t add more to this. Space also prohibits engaging with chapter two, which concerns methodology – both writers regard Scripture as the final authority, and both read extra-biblical sources to help illuminate it, so Wright’s ‘close quarter debate with Piper’ in this section is not quite as enlightening as it might appear. And readers familiar with both writers will already know that ‘exegesis’ means slightly different things to both men, with Wright preferring panoramic paragraphs about the grand sweep of the text, while Piper goes into more detail on conjunctions, clauses and sentences. So there are no surprises here.
The surprises begin in chapter three, where it becomes apparent how much Wright has misunderstood Piper (at least, from my reading of things, having read about twenty books by each of them). Anyone with an internet connection could quickly discover, for example, that (a) Piper is as God-centred in his gospel as anyone, (b) he has an even stronger objection to the NIV on Romans than Wright does, (c) he is emphatic that the biblical story reaches its climax in Jesus, (d) he has engaged thoroughly with scholarly literature on ‘God’s righteousness’, whether or not you agree with him, (e) he has written an entire book about how God’s plan to bless all nations is accomplished in the gospel, (f) he does not for a minute believe justification covers the whole of salvation from grace to glory, and (g) Piper’s view of imputation is that Christ’s righteousness, not the righteousness of the judge in the lawcourt, is imputed to the believer.
So it is odd to find Wright implying that Piper presents a man-centred, NIV-positive, narrative-denying view of righteousness in Paul, in which the judge’s righteousness is imputed to the believer (where did this view come from, I wonder?) It is even stranger to hear that Piper ‘ignores’ scholarship on God’s righteousness (p. 45), despite The Justification of God, and ‘perhaps has never even glimpsed’ the plan to bless the world through Abraham’s seed (p. 49), despite Let the Nations Be Glad. It all left me with the impression that Wright had not had the time to read Piper properly. (Having said that, if I had his responsibilities, I doubt I would have, either.)
So what are the areas of clear disagreement? Well, they are harder to find than you think. Wright certainly says lots of things as if they are areas of disagreement, but on inspection, many of them aren’t (and this is why I enjoyed reading it so much – his best writing is reserved for those moments when he reaffirms God’s big plan through Abraham to rescue the world, and on each occasion I scribbled ‘Yes!’ in the margin.) The apparent disagreements, however, can make it harder to see what they actually disagree about: I very much doubt Piper, or for that matter Carson or Westerholm or Moo or Seifrid, believes that justification involves ‘infusing’ righteousness, or that Romans 9-11 is a tangent, or that ecclesiology is irrelevant, or that the church needs not confront the principalities and powers, or that we should resist kingdom theology, or that we need to play off ‘justification by faith’ and ‘being in Christ’ against each other, to give a few examples. The waters are also muddied somewhat by Wright’s approach, which often involves restating the big picture of God’s-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world, as if this rules out the notion of individuals being counted righteous in Christ (the most notable places where this happens, unsurprisingly, are with reference to Rom 4:1-25 and 2 Cor 5:21). As the writer of a recent book that trumpets both the big-plan-to-rescue-creation, and the reality of imputed righteousness in Christ, I don’t find this persuasive.
Having said that, Wright and Piper clearly disagree on a number of points, many of which would require far more space (not to mention learning!) than I have. On most of them, I can see where both are coming from, and it would not affect my view of Paul dramatically either way. The two key questions, however, as I see it, are as follows. (1) Does ‘the righteousness of God’ mean, essentially, ‘God’s covenant faithfulness’ (Wright) or ‘God’s commitment to act in accordance with his character and glory’ (Piper)? (2) What is reckoned to the believer: the death and resurrection of Jesus (Wright), or the death, resurrection and righteousness of Jesus (Piper)?
All good posts end with a cliffhanger. See you for the final part tomorrow.