Interview with N.T. Wright – Responding to Piper on Justification

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ntwrightofficefinal1Today’s interview with N.T. Wright (Bishop of Durham) concerns his new book: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.

Justification represents Wright’s response to John Piper’s  The Future of Justification (see my commentary here) and is scheduled for release in the UK in February by SPCK and in the U.S. in May by IVP.

My previous two interviews with Bishop Wright can be accessed here and here.

Trevin Wax: How does this robust discussion on justification between you and John Piper help the church to better fulfill its purpose in the world?

N.T. Wright: How does the robust discussion between me and Piper help the church to better fulfill its purpose in the world? Well, I hope it will, and that’s part of the main point of what I’m saying.

wright-responseMy anxiety about what has now been seen as the traditional Reformed view (though there are many traditional Reformed views!) is that it focuses all attention on ‘me and my salvation’ rather than on ‘God and God’s purposes’, which – as we see in the Gospels, and in e.g. Romans 8 – are much wider than just my salvation. This book, for me, thus follows from Surprised by Hope and the other things I’ve been writing in the same vein.

More generally, I hope that the book will alert people to the fact that the underlying discussion is really about taking Scripture seriously – (a) the whole Scripture, not just selected parts, and (b) Scripture as the final arbiter, over against all human traditions including our own! That cannot but help the church in its purpose in the world . . .

Trevin Wax: What would you say are the key differences between you and Piper on justification?

N.T. Wright: Well, I set justification within the larger Pauline context, where it always comes, of God’s purposes to fulfill his covenant promise to Abraham and so to rescue the whole creation, humankind of course centrally included, from sin and death. Piper holds that Abrahamic context at arm’s length.

Second, I understand justification as basically a law-court term, where it means the judge’s creative declaration that a person is ‘in the right’ in terms of the lawcourt, whereas Piper holds that justification involves the accrediting to a person of the moral, not the forensic, ‘righteousness’ of Christ – something Paul never says (as J. I. Packer admits).

Third, I understand Paul’s doctrine of justification as eschatological, that is, the justification of the faithful in the present time is both the fulfilment of the long story of Israel and the anticipation of the eventual verdict to be delivered on the last day, as in Romans 2.1-16 and 8.1-30.

Fourth, in line with many Reformed readers of scripture, including Calvin, I understand Paul’s doctrine of justification to be of those who are ‘in Christ’, whereas Piper and others don’t make that a central element in justification itself. Conversely, for Piper the center of justification is the ‘imputation’ of ‘the righteousness of Christ’, seen in terms of ‘righteousness’ as a kind of moral achievement earned by Jesus and then reckoned to those who believe. I believe that this is an attempt to say something close to what Paul actually says in Romans 6, namely that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is ‘reckoned’ to those who are ‘in him’. Putting it the way Piper (and one part of the Reformation tradition) puts it is a pointer to something which is truly there in Paul, but one which gives off misleading signals as well.

Finally, for Piper justification through Christ alone is the same in the future (on the last day) as in the present, whereas for Paul, whom I am following very closely at this point, the future justification is given on the basis of the Spirit-generated life that the justified-by-faith-in-the-present person then lives. In fact, the omission of the Spirit from many contemporary Reformed statements of justification is one of their major weaknesses.

Trevin Wax: What do you hope this new book will accomplish?

N.T. Wright: I hope it will clear up many misunderstandings, and show that the version of the ‘new perspective’ which I embrace and expound (there are as many quite different versions of the so-called NP as there are expositors of it) is not at all inimical to the real concerns, including personal salvation, substitutionary atonement, and so forth, of the ‘traditionalists’.

I hope, too, it will send the next generation of thoughtful Christians back to Scripture itself, not to this or that tradition.

Trevin Wax: How does this short book relate to the longer book on Paul that you are currently writing?

N.T. Wright: The longer book is intended to be a full-scale treatment of Paul’s theology, integrating traditional ‘theological’ topics with the political and philosophical ones which are implicit in his work. I sketched what I intend to do in Paul: In Fresh Perspective, particularly chapters 5, 6 and 7. Imagine each of those chapters on a grand scale (e.g. about 200 pages each!) and you’ll see what I have in mind.

The debate with Piper functions as a sub-debate within the middle one of those chapters. I didn’t want to have to go into that much detail on that particular debate in the big book, since there are so many other debates out there that need to be engaged . . .

Trevin Wax: Do you see a ‘middle ground’ being reached in recent discussions? A post-new-perspective equilibrium or sorts?

N.T. Wright: No, not an equilibrium. A lot of confusion, rather.

I think there’s a danger in ‘old perspective’ supporters still trying to run an implicit ‘conservative versus liberal’ debate on this one, trying to accuse NP folk of some of the failings of an older liberalism. Better to see the historical and theological quest to understand Paul going wide open to encourage everyone to get back to reading the texts in their proper contexts. If that means going beyond this ‘perspectives’ language, so be it. But it is sometimes helpful to put down some markers as a shorthand way of signposting key moves.

One of the truly worrying things about Piper is his insistence that we should be wary of reading Paul in his Jewish context . . . which basically means that we end up reading him as though he was really a 17th-century theologian born out of due time . . .

Trevin Wax: What is at stake in this debate over justification? If one were to adopt Piper’s view instead of yours, what would they be missing?

N.T. Wright: What’s missing is the big, Pauline picture of God’s gospel going out to redeem the whole world, all of creation, with ourselves as part of that.

What’s missing is the big, Pauline view of the church, Jew and Gentile on equal footing, as the sign to the powers of the world that Jesus is Lord and they aren’t.

What’s missing is the key work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the already-justified believers to live with moral energy and will so that they really do ‘please God’ as Paul says again and again (but as Reformed theology is shy of lest it smack of smuggling in works-righteousness again).

What’s missing is an insistence on Scripture itself rather than tradition . . .

For further reading, check out my summary statements of Wright and Piper’s positions in the June 2009 issue of Christianity Today.

Trevin Wax interview with N.T. Wright. copyright © 2009 Kingdom People Blog.

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