42 and all that

open quotes[Wright’s] portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognise as biblically faithful.close quotes

(John Piper1)

Ok, the quote to your right is a serious statement, so over the next couple of posts I’m going to start exploring the debate between Piper and Wright as I understand it…

At the start of his book, Wright gives an analogy of a friend who, through accident of education, is convinced that the sun revolves around the earth. This friend points to what he sees with his eyes – the rising and setting of the sun – and holds that tradition, held over many hundreds of years, also stands in support of his claim. Despite long conversations late into the night, your friend remains unconvinced by all your attempts to persuade him otherwise. The point that Wright makes is that this is exactly how it appears to him – his attempts to outline a different way of viewing God’s plan for salvation have been flatly rejected as obscuring what, to many in the reformed tradition at least, is presented as ‘the most obvious meaning’ of scripture. With some frustration, Wright is seeking to outline his view that discussion of justification as ‘the evidence of our eyes’ belies the fact that the reformed view of ‘justification’, as many understand it, is deeply conditioned by a tradition that obfuscates Paul’s original meaning. Here, Wright spells it out:

The theological equivalent of supposing that the earth goes round the sun is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation2

Wright, aware of his own potential to be in error, is seeking to engage in a discussion on whether the sun truly does revolve around the earth or if things might be a little different from what they seem. If the ‘story’ of justification is not that God revolves around me, the sinner, and that Paul was meaning something quite different, then this copernican revolution deserves our careful attention. Wright’s argument is that justification is, indeed, expressing a much larger story about the plan of God for his universe. “God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world.”3 Salvation, whilst obviously hugely significant for every individual, is part of a much larger purpose:

We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around4

To be fair to Piper, I’m sure he would very much agree that we are not ‘the centre of the universe’. His very definition of God’s righteousness as “[God’s] unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name in all he does” lays this out fairly firmly. However, something in me riles against the tendency in reformed evangelical circles to explain the Christian life from the starting point of detached propositional truths. This isn’t the way Paul chose to unpack the Christian life. God didn’t give us the Bible as a systematic, theological primer, he gave us a book with lots of really good stories, letters, poems and histories – the ‘doctrine’ threaded through its pages is mostly pulled out to address specific pastoral needs. If we depart from framing our discussion in the context of God’s plan for the universe, then are we departing from the Bible’s choice of communication?

The historian in me is more attracted to Wright’s attempt to place Paul firmly within a historical context. I am also impressed by how hard he works to synthesise the old and new testaments. Here’s a confession: I admit to being attracted to this approach, before actually hearing his arguments, because it fits into my categories of thinking. So, when Wright says things like “for too long we have read scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions…”5 I‘m liking his style. At times, it does feel as if Piper’s arguments are a little detached from all that has gone before, as if the long story of Israel is merely a backdrop that can be pushed aside (once proof texts have been extracted, of course) rather than the whole book being about the story of God’s plan to save the world.

In case it isn’t already obvious, I’ll come out, unashamedly, to state that as I start to explore what I think, my eggs are largely starting in Tom Wright’s basket. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to be ‘thinking out loud’ as I unpack this debate a bit further, in a (vain?) attempt to come to my own, considered, opinion. All being well, my next post will ask a question I haven’t properly addressed yet regarding Wright and Piper’s conflicting views on justification: ‘So what?’

  1. Piper, J. (2008), The Future of Justification: A response to N. T. Wright, Nottingham: IVP, p. 15  ↩

  2. Wright, N., T. (2009), Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, London: SPCK, p. 7  ↩

  3. Wright (2009), p. 8  ↩

  4. Wright (2009), p. 8  ↩

  5. Wright (2009), p. 21  ↩

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