I’m long overdue to look into this new controversy raging among evangelicals. I know Tom Wright and John Piper. They are both fine scholars, but they approach doctrine quite differently. (For those of you not familiar with what is going on…Piper has written against Wright’s views on Paul and justification. Piper considers himself a serious scholar on Paul and especially Romans and without doubt he is that. Wright has now written a response to Piper’s critique entitled simply Justification [IVP 2009]. There is quite a stir among evangelical scholars over this debate with charges of heresy sometimes being cast at Wright.)
I’ve been reading Wright’s book Justification and now the point of the debate is coming into clearer focus. I’ll write about that more later. Here I simply want to discuss the methodological difference underlying the debate.
On page 26 of Justification Wright mentions me and says he is one of my “postconservative evangelicals” (as delineated in Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology [BakerAcademic, 2007]). On the next page he explains: “[s]ometimes worldviews have to be shaken.” Clearly he means sometimes venerable doctrines have to be reconsidered and adjusted in light of fresh and faithful biblical research. The doctrine under consideration here, of course, is justification by grace through faith alone. Wright does not seem to be questioning that belief but only how it has been understood and sometimes enforced by conservative Protestants (especially Lutheran and Reformed).
Clearly Wright is NOT appealing to philosophy or culture; there is no hint of accommodation to modernity in Justification. His challenges to traditional ways of understanding the doctrine of justification are based solely on historical-grammatical exegesis of Paul’s letters (especially Galatians, Ephesians and Romans).Apparently some critics of Wright’s (and others’) “new perspective on Paul” have accused him of throwing tradition to the wind. He defends himself against that while admitting that he regards tradition as only relatively authoritative and as not having a veto over biblical research such as his own which is respectful of the Bible’s inspiration and authority.
This is, in my opinion, a classical case of what I have been calling postconservative evangelical theology for the past decade and more. My case study in the past has usually been the doctrine of God and especially the “relational revolution” in that area of theology among evangelicals (e.g., open theism).
Wright’s argument against his critics is that they are spell bound by tradition and unwilling to open their minds to what Paul is really saying about justification and the righteousness of God, etc. Also, he accuses them of distorting his views (e.g., as expressed in some of his commentaries and monographs). Some have apparently accused him of smuggling “merit” back into the doctrine of salvation. He adamantly rejects that.
So what is really going on in this debate? And what is Wright’s view of justification? What is the “righteousness of God” referred to so often by Paul? Do good works play a role in justification (as some of Wright’s critics have charged)? I plan to take up some of these questions in future posts here.
In the meantime, I hope you who are interested in this controversy will buy or borrow Justification by N. T. Wright and read it. It’s better than just reading secondary summaries such as have been published in some Christian magazines.