Saturday, December 19, 2009

Wright and Piper on Justification

Looking forward, one of the things that I would like to do with this blog is comment on the very recent exchange that has taken place on the subject of justification between N.T. Wright (Anglican bishop of Durham) and John Piper (pastor of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis).

I am deeply intrigued by both figures.  Piper, besides for being someone with whom I've had the joy of wrestling with on this blog, is perhaps one of the most recognizable--not to mention well-liked--names in Baptist theology and preaching these days.

Wright is also highly respected, perhaps as much by those who disagree with him as those who do (hence, Piper's readiness to devote a book-length response to Wright's views).  Within Catholic circles, Wright has been attracting attention because many people who have become attracted to Wright's theology have gone one step further and become Catholic, leading some people to ask if Wright's theology leads to Catholicism.  Wright has denied the claim, but it is easy, given first impressions, to see that Wright is far closer to Catholic ideas of justification than someone like Piper is.

In the interest of full disclosure, my initial reactions to Wright have always been that he is a profoundly deep and careful thinker and that he is indeed on the right path (though not always there yet).  On the other hand, I have a difficult time reading Piper without noticing what, to me, seem like gaping holes in his account both of what Wright has said and what the Biblical texts themselves say.

Rather than try to justify these initial responses here, I'd first like to state two general reactions that involve both authors.  These questions are really more like meta-questions that arise out of my own desire to figure out why I side so readily with one author and not the other.  Am I missing Piper's brilliance or Wright's logical gaps?

From a Catholic perspective, there seem to be two significant meta-differences (though the first difference may actually be a difference between both authors and the Catholic perspective):

1.  What Piper (more often than Wright) is calling the "New Perspective" may actually be the older perspective, and what Piper seems to think is the old perspective is (from a Catholic perspective) a very new perspective indeed.  While Piper claims that neither Wright nor he put traditions old or new above the Scriptures, Piper still seems to position his interpretation in a historical context so as to add a conservative weight or frame to his position.  I can't help but sense in between the lines of the rhetorical dance Piper performs at the beginning of his book that he feels like he is losing the debate on this issue, and that deep down, he harbors a significant fear that what he thinks is the very heart and mission of the Reformation will be lost.

2.  Perhaps more interesting, I think, is a difference between the authors and their positions themselves.  Piper strikes me as taking a very heady approach to the topic.  He takes umbrage to the idea that we are saved by believing in correct doctrines, yet, he immediately back-pedals as close as he can to the idea so as to connect his view of justification with the heart of the gospel.  (Again, Piper's apparent need at every turn to preserve as much ground as possible makes it seem like he is in the defensive.)

As a music teacher, I find time and again that if a person is struggling with one aspect of a performance, say fingering, that true weakness--and with it the true solution to the problem--is often found in another domain, say, in the ear's understanding of the pitches or rhythm.

I think that the difference between Piper and Wright might not ultimately be that they simply interpret some passages differently than one another, as if they could both somehow look at all the same passages at the same time with the exact same emphases (etc.), they would simply see the truth of the other's position.

In this case, I think the difference is more of a meta-difference, and one that relates not to Biblical exegesis but rather to liturgy.

I think the fact that Wright belongs to a (high) liturgical tradition and Piper does not accounts for the large chasm between their views on justification.  It is not so much that Wright reads the Bible differently than Piper, but Wright reads it in a liturgical context.  In contrast, Piper's reading of the Bible is the heart of the liturgy at his Baptist Church.  Piper preaches about Jesus for an hour a week to his congregation.  Wright celebrates the liturgy with his congregation.

I hypothesize that it is impossible to appreciate the difference between Piper and Wright on justification without understanding the profound difference between their experiences of liturgy.

Piper's book starts out with eight points about Wright's view of justification that give him pause--eight things that make Piper think that Wright's views will lead away from effective preaching of the gospel.

But the gospel for Wright isn't first about the preaching of the gospel!  It is about experiencing the gospel himself who is Jesus!  It is about worshiping Jesus with His covenant people, the church.

For Piper, then, Wright's view of justification threatens the very core of what Piper's experience of Christian worship has been: the proclamation of the word.  Wright, on the other hand, seems to have a much more nuanced approach to the Scriptures, since his liturgical universe doesn't hinge so much on the doctrine as on the person of Jesus.  At the same time, this more liturgical-minded, covenantal  approach to justification ends up being reflected in the very doctrine of justification that Wright develops.  It is no wonder, then, that from Wright's perspective, Piper seems incapable of appreciating the very pieces of the puzzle as Wright lays them out.  Wright's approach to reading the Scriptures seems to fall outside the realm of possibility in Piper's imagination.

As a Catholic layman who is by no means an expert in theology, I imagine that a significant portion of both Piper's and Wright's arguments will go over my head.  As an apologist, this becomes yet another reason that we need an authoritative magisterium to set at least some guidelines to the discussion.  Absent these authoritative guidelines, I would suggest that it becomes very difficult for the average Joe to know the truth.  Yet, did God intend for the truth--the Truth that is Jesus--to be known only by those of us with high-flying intellects?  Of course not!

Not only does the Catholic Church provide authoritative guidelines for interpreting the Bible, but the church is also careful to point out that within these guidelines there is ample room for interpretation, so much room in fact that it may be that the majority of both Piper and Wright's views could be considered compatible with Catholic theology.  Catholic theology really is more like a wide-open playground that is simply surrounded by a fence to prevent the children from falling of the precipice that lies beyond it.  The dogmas and doctrines of the church (which ultimately represent the Church's interpretation of the Scriptures) do not squelch dialogue but rather open up true dialogue by clearly marking the space within which possibilities may be explored.

Within this space, you can easily find someone like Pope Benedict XVI saying that the idea of justification by faith alone is correct, so long as faith is considered to be a faith that is animated by love and charity throughout life.  Whereas Piper seems hung-up on the particularities and technicalities of a precise doctrinal summation, both Wright and Benedict seem open to expressing all that is true, good, and holy.

1 comment:

whw said...

There is a good primer on the history and scope of the "New Perspective" at The term itself was coined by James D.G. Dunn, who is in agreement with N.T. Wright on these matters.