I’ve been interested in the debate that Wright and Piper have been engaging in over the “New Perspective” (or at least Wright’s version of it). After reading Piper’s book, The Future of Justification, I thought it was only fair to read Wright’s response called Justification. In this book Wright reminded me of Mike Tyson in the infamous Evander Holyfield fight with that whole “ear incident.” What has been one of the most highly charged polemical books I have read in a long time, Wright simply comes out swinging. Not because he thinks he is losing, but because for nine rounds he feels as if he has been misunderstood, mischaracterized, misquoted, and misrepresented. I cannot blame him for coming out and defending his name, and more importantly, his orthodoxy and love for the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the only source of saving faith sinful humanity has to go to find redemption. The book is well written, and I would contend, the clearest presentation of what Wright has been trying to say. That being said, I still find his argumentation unconvincing.
He begins by typecasting himself as the loyal friend who is attempting to explain to another that the sun does not revolve around the earth. He likens adherents of the “old perspective” to those that would rather cling to tradition that to undertake a “fresh” reading of Paul that might jostle the cart of Pauline theological assumptions that have been held since the reformation. He asserts that those who are attacking him are simply not listening to what he, or for that matter Paul, are saying. He also likens himself to Luther and Calvin who, against the ecclesiological norm of their day, bucked the system in order to render a right reading of Scripture. He is surprised to find so many in the reformed tradition taking him to task for the doing the very thing that their heroes did five-hundred years ago. He goes on to say that the theological framework in which Paul has been interpreted is simply not sufficient. There is too much emphasis placed on individual redemption and not the redemption of the world. There is almost no talk of the Spirit’s role in many present concept of justification. Most importantly for Wright, theologians and pastors are not reading Paul correctly because of a bias that will not fit with their preconceived notions of the law, justification, and Judaism. He argues that if we silence what Paul actually said so that we can feel better about our theological conclusions, we are silencing Scripture and missing out on the beauty of God’s word.
He goes on to defend several of his assertions. First, Wright corrects a misunderstanding of Judaism and the law. He claims that the law was never the means by which people got saved. For Wright, the Jews were never asking this question. The more important question in the Jewish community was, “How do we know who is part of the covenant community of Abraham?” The law provided certain boundary markers to tell who was in the covenant community. This means that we have mischaracterized the Judaism of Paul’s day. He also speaks of justification, as the “status” given that one is right standing with God, and a member of God’s covenant family. Here Wright speaks of the law-court setting in which the declaration of the Judge in favor of the plaintiff only gives a status, not the actual substance of righteousness. There is no change in the moral character of the one who is justified by God. This is one of the main points in Wright’s argument for which he attempts to defend exegetically in the second part of his book. The question that Wright never answers, however, is whether or not believers ever actually get righteousness, or just a status? If we do actually get righteousness, where does it come from? His silence may be his answer. However, Wright never addresses this in his book, but simply says that imputation is not to be found anywhere in Paul. Something I think he drastically overstates. I found some of his exegesis here; especially with 2 Cor. 5:21 to be lacking. He places 5:21 inside of the larger framework of Paul defending his authority as an apostle, and as 5:19-21 as Paul’s explanation of what he is preaching with the authority of an apostle. This however, does not necessitate the exegetical gymnastics he does to make verse 21 speak of Paul as “embodying God’s covenant faithfulness.” The change is unnecessary, and is stretching. Wright also begins to unpack the role of works inside of Pauline theology. It is at this point that I feel Wright did some of his best work. Up until I read chapter eight it appeared that, for all his counter claims that he was not trying to “sneak works in the back door,” that that was in fact what he was doing. In chapter eight he unpacked all of the passages where Paul joins “works” to the eschatological judgment and asks the question, “How do you explain these verses?” He appeals to the necessity of the Spirit in the life of the believer, as well as the believer’s responsibility to live a life in the power the Spirit provides. At this point, I’m not sure that Wright is saying anything much different from the reformation, but as trying to elevate the role of Spirit-empowered works to its proper seat. This was an area in which I was most critical of Wright, but which I feel he defended well. I’m not completely satisfied as of yet, but have shifted.
The book is a great read. There are still questions that I wish Wright would attempt to answer. Although the water still isn’t as clear as I would like, some of the silt appears to be settling. If you have read Piper’s book, this should be the next one you pick up.
You’ve probably heard by now that John Piper is taking a leave of absence from his church and all speaking/writing engagements. Unfortunately, this means that he will no longer be one of the plenary speakers at this year’s national ETS conference, the theme of which is “Justification by Faith.” That is unfortunate since N.T. Wright will be one of the other plenary speakers and it would have been fun to have both of them involved.
But, ETS has announced that Tom Schreiner will be stepping in to take Piper’s place. What do you think? Tom has written extensively on the subject, but I’m not personally familiar with most of his books. Do you think he’s a good replacement for Piper? If you were on the nominating committee, is there anyone that you would have suggested instead?