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Personal Thoughts on N. T. Wright and John Piper

I’ve now completed my mini-adventure into the debate between John Piper and N. T. Wright on justification. To conclude this short series I’ll offer my own “heuristic” understanding of the debate (with thanks to Dr. James Grier for teaching me the meaning of the word “heuristic”).

First-Century (Second Temple) Judaism. The foundational issue is the nature of Saul’s theology, namely, the theology of first-century Judaism. The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has done us a great benefit by challenging the traditional understanding that first-century Judaism resembled the Roman Catholic Church of Luther’s day. Rather, first-century Judaism had a strong belief in election and covenant. This understanding should inform our reading of Paul.

That being said, the evidence of first-century Judaism is not as decisive as N. T. Wright and other NPP proponents make it seem. There is still a considerable amount of debate from the scholarly community. Furthermore, if we use the Bible as our primary source for first-century Judaism (as I believe we should), then we must consider the characterization of the Pharisees found in the Gospels. It seems clear that self-righteousness (although not proto-Pelagianism) was an issue (see Matthew 23 and Luke 18:9-11 for two examples). I find it interesting that this is not discussed in N. T. Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said (I realize that the Pauline epistles may precede the Gospels in date, but this does not invalidate their descriptions of first-century Judaism).

Pauline Situations. As a result, I believe that N. T. Wright is correct when he states that Paul was not encountering or countering proto-Pelagian opponents. Rather, the context of Galatians and Romans seems to indicate that the primary issue in both letters was Jew-Gentile relationships. Furthermore, the idea that the issue of “covenant markers” (signs of who was and who was not a part of the community) fits the context extremely well. This challenges (and perhaps changes) our traditional reading and preaching of these letters.

That being said, there are two important items to note. First, NPP proponents disagree on the exact nature of these covenant markers/”works of the law” (for example, N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn do not agree on all points). So we still have some work to do in this area. But second, I grealy appreciate John Piper’s comments in The Future of Justification that the Pauline opponent’s emphasis on covenant markers had a root of self-righteousness. Therefore, Paul’s arguments are not directly against proto-Pelagians, but do carry many of the same implications. In other words, Luther wasn’t exactly right, but he wasn’t completely wrong either.

Pauline Terminology. At the heart of the debate is the understanding of the Pauline terms gospel, righteousness, and justification. In order to understand these terms it is necessary to look at their use in context of the Old Testament and the Pauline epistles. Here is where I find Douglas Moo’s magisterial commentary on Romans extremely helpful. As I have stated previously, Piper’s The Future of Justification simply does not provide the kind of exegesis required to fully engage these issues. Douglas Moo, however, provides as much exegesis as us normal guys can comprehend. Here are a few of his major points.

  1. The terms righteousness (300x in the LXX) and righteous (400x in the LXX) in the Old Testament refer to both God and humans. When these refer to God, they often speak of God’s character and God’s actions associated with his covenant. In this manner he seems to agree with N. T. Wright. However, while Wright stresses God’s character (covenant faithfulness), Moo stresses God’s actions (for example, see the parallel between “righteousness” and “salvation” in Isaiah 46:13, Isaiah 51:5-8). Moo believes that it is God’s saving activity that primarily informs Paul’s use of the term. On an interesting side note, Moo emphasizes “covenant” like Wright and claims that Piper’s emphasis on “glory” is close but too narrow.
  2. When the terms righteousness and righteous refer to humans, they often speak of actions “well pleasing to God” and a “response to covenant.” In this manner he agrees with John Piper, because it is not merely the status of an individual. In sum, Moo suggests righteousness is “vindicating God’s people, granting them deliverance based on their own righteousness or God’s promises” (84).
  3. When these are applied to a passage such as Romans 1:17, Moo allows for a wide variety of meanings. He believes that “the righteousness of God” includes God’s attributes (his faithfulness), God’s actions (in accordance with his covenant), and a status given to people. In other words, Romans 1:17 speaks of how God acts and what humans receive. Notice that Moo allows for both Wright and Piper to be correct. But, this begin said, he certainly favors the traditional Reformed view because this righteousness is based upon human faith: “Here Paul introduces a key modification of the Old Testament idea of God’s righteousness. God’s righteousness is the “righteousness of faith”…It speaks not just about God’s work in Christ on the cross, but more directly of his work in individual human lives, as he puts those who respond to the gospel in faith in right relationship with him” (Moo, NIVAP, 55).
  4. In terms of justification, Moo believes that Paul has expanded the Old Testament meaning in three ways: 1) the law-court of justification is not merely based upon the facts of the plaintiff or defendant (as Wright claims), but also include the facts of Jesus’ life and resurrection, 2) justification is in the present, and 3) justification is more than acquittal because future sins are accounted for as well. Therefore, Paul’s use of justification is more than just a marker of who is in, it actually accomplishes something. In this regard, Moo is fully in line with Piper.

So it seems that the NPP and traditional Reformed exegesis can come together to form a more complete and accurate picture of these terms. In other words, it seems possible to maintain a Reformed systematic theology while incorporating the NPP exegesis.

Imputed Righteousness. Both Wright and Piper affirm imputation due to our union with Christ (although Piper believes it is present in a lot more texts than Wright). I remain Reformed in believing that Christ’s moral righteousness is imputed to us. I remain particularly committed to the more traditional exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:21 than Wright’s innovative approach.

So what is my “heuristic” understanding? I believe that Paul was not responding to a proto-Pelagian heresy, but was responding to self-righteous Israelites who were denying that Gentiles were in the covenant community. The heresy was a self-righteousness that did not allow Gentiles to be members of the covenant community by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul responds by insisting on a covenant membership defined by faith in Jesus Christ that includes acquittal, forgiveness, and union with Christ (which includes imputation).

So what does the future hold? I want to read more by N. T. Wright. There is no doubt that he is a brilliant New Testament scholar and we can learn a lot from his writings. I may purchase the reader-friendly For Everyone commentary series to enhance my own studies on every New Testament book. I also want to purchase his contribution on Romans in the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary and study Romans along side Douglas Moo’s NICNT commentary on Romans. This should allow more balanced, well-researched discussions regarding the issues at hand.

Happy reading!

  1. December 3, 2007 at 10:31 am

    So when do we hear about how all this pans out into Joe PewSitter’s life? How would a Wright guy come to faith differently than a Piper guy? How would they follow Jesus differently? How would either view change the way we live out faith within the community of believers?

  2. December 3, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Almost forgot to say thanks.
    Thanks Brian!
    Thanks for boiling it all down in to a concise overview.
    Someday there will be young seminary students who will be quoting Piper, Wright, and McLaughlin!

  3. Brian
    December 3, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Here is co-pastoring at its best: Brian is writing essays that critique John Piper’s exegesis and Andrew is posting doctored-up pictures of his family with Brett Favre. I think we’ve got it covered…


  4. February 3, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    I’ve read several Wright books and some of Piper’s popular books, but I really thought Piper’s connection of righteousness connected to consistency to His glory (obviously including ‘covenant faithfulness’) quite compelling. Using Romans 4 to create a definition for righteousness was brilliant.

  5. April 3, 2008 at 1:12 am

    As a strongly reformed (and BGC), Non-NPP person, I still highly recommend N.T.’s “For Everyone” series, not as a first commentary of course (because they are not real deep) But they are excellent as a supplement.

  6. bill borch
    November 2, 2008 at 9:32 am

    I don’t even know if you’ll get to see this; it is November ’08, after all! But thanks for the Piper/Wright…. One comment: so far as Joe Pewsitter…. I hope he has no serious traumas in his life that find him trying to understand how God truly loves….Yet, “decrees” “arbitrarily” to eternal damnation. My point is that at the end of the day this is the kind of thing that will determine the significance of “justification”, etc. in “Joe’s” life. What is God “like”!! Is he a person or a “logic”? To a great degree Wright’s appeal is to it’s better accounting for the Father’s being seen in the Son. He’s serious and not playing a theology game.

  7. January 12, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Wright? Piper? Who are any of them that we should regard them. I do not recall either of them being called by the Spirit to be apostles. Neither did they rise from the dead.

    Why do preachers cause havoc on the church? Because we follow men and not the Spirit of Christ. So, for all out talk we do not believe in the sole mediatorship of Christ nor in sola scriptura. For if we were abiding in christ we would simply know his voice and not hear that of any other.

    I have grave issues with both of them, but when Wright undercuts imputed righteousness he destroys any chance i have of approaching the Holy and Terrible. Approaching Him through the church as covenant community? This too undercuts the sole mediatorship of Christ

    So out Wright goes. Any truths he has I can get from other sources. Besides their truths do not save them when their errors are damnable.

    The ultimate irreducible core of things is that as each man will bear his own load so we stand before God alone. Thus righteousness is standing before God before it is anything to do with community, and this is based on imputed righteousness and must be , given the nature of sin. Any relationship, community or anything else that gets in the way of this is idolatrous

  1. December 3, 2007 at 11:05 am
  2. June 26, 2009 at 9:12 pm

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