Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Wrighteousness of God

One of the storm-centres of hermeneutics today concerns our understanding of Romans, Galatians, and justification as taught by Paul in those epistles. The storm is the whirlwind generated by the (so called) New Perspective on Paul, in which the "old" storm-centre, debate between the Catholic impartation of righteousness through the sacraments and the Protestant imputation of righteousness through faith, is challenged by focusing on justification through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The New Perspective is in fact several perspectives, associated with scholars such as E.P. Sanders, J.D.G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright. The last mentioned's great populist influence means he has been subject to extraordinary critique, including a recent and widely noted one from John Piper, leading American pastor and preacher.

Who is right? readily becomes, Is it Wright? (!!)

Gerald Bray takes up the question in this editorial in The Churchman wittily titled, The Wrighteousness of God.

What do you think?


  1. What do I think? I frequently disagree with Tom Wright's exegesis, but he deserves better treatment than he gets in Gerald Bray's editorial, which I have just read in full, on your recommendation. Bray gives his evangelical readership a potted version of a controversy between John Piper and Tom Wright as found two books: Piper's critique of Wright's biblical theology and Wright's short volume in reply. I have two problems with Bray's coverage of this exchange: he is neither objective nor well informed.
    Firstly, his readers should expect objectivity: both books should get equal treatment. What we get is a lengthy restatement of Piper's argument, which is accepted uncritically and recommended on the ground that it expresses classical reformation theology. Wright must be wrong if it can demonstrated that his reading of the Bible is at odds with that theology. Bray accepts Piper's denunciation at face value and then turns to consider Wright's self defence. But rather than detailing Wright's argument, he simply proclaims it lightweight, giving Wright's reaction to a blurb from another scholar D A Carson as an example of this lack of substance. He then rather patronizingly explains this as due to Wright's preoccupation with his episcopal role to the neglect of his biblical scholarship, and goes on to recommend that he choose between the two... Now that you have chosen the burdens and status of being a bishop, Dr Tom, conservatives should not have to be further troubled by your popularity as a scholar.
    Nothing is said, of course about any conflict of interests between the various roles of Dr Piper. Nor is there any question about his credentials for mounting his critique of Wright's body of biblical research. Three months off duty to bone up on Wright's books does not make one current in biblical scholarship almost four decades after gaining one's own doctorate in New Testament, as Piper once did. The fact is that Gerald Bray is not a biblical scholar, and John Piper may have been once but is not now current in this field, unlike Tom Wright. Wright's writings on biblical theology may appeal to a popular market, but they are firmly situated within the academic context of current biblical research, and it is within that context that they must ultimately stand or fall. Piper's critique seems to be written as a pastoral reassurance for his own devotees and is unlikely to make any contribution to the academic challenges Dr Wright must face. Bray's audience needs to learn the difference, but is unlikely to get much help from this editorial.

  2. How interesting - I read Bray's editorial only yesterday. I've read portions of Piper's book (a bit hard on the eyes on the web).
    1. I think Wright's grand grounding theory 'Israel is still in exile' is not that convincing. Stephen Noll has written on this elsewhere.
    2. 'dikaio' is a declarative word. Latin 'justificare' should literally mean 'to MAKE just', which implies imparting God's righteousness (the Lutheran/Catholic division: imputation vs. impartation - where John Henry Newman signaled his parting of ways). Contemporary linguistics (locution/illocution/perlocution; performative utterances etc) illuminate this usage from the forensic world ('I declare you not guilty').
    3. 'Justification and Variegated Nomism' is a demanding read but worth tackling.

  3. Thanks Howard and Anonymous for illuminating comment ... nicely reinforcing my point that hermeneutics is not easy!

    I must get hold of both Piper and Wright on Justification to read for myself ...

  4. Howard, have you actually read Piper's book? It's freely available on the 'Desiring God' website. I've managed about half of it so far. Piper bends over backwards to be fair to Wright and actually submitted his copy to Wright for comment before publication - something that Wright did not do in return for Piper.
    Wright's argument (as I have tried to follow it) is pretty elusive ('justified on the basis of a whole life lived') and Bray is correct that he hasn't really convinced others of the soundness of his exegesis. It must be said that Wright's style, esp. when he is in polemical overdrive, does try one's patience - I remember his prolix canonade against 'Pierced for Our Transgressions', the gist of which was that the authors didn't share Wright's ideological reconstruction of the Jesus tradition and so were wrong. Yet deep within Wright says yes, he does after all agree with penal substitionary atonement ... (something I doubt you agree with).
    Paul Helm in 'Helm's Deep' also reviews Piper and Wright and argues that Wright has reversed the Ordo Salutis of the Reformers.
    And if you want other scholarly names that broadly reaffirm Reformation exegesis against modern views, try Stephen Westerholm (a Lutheran) and Simon Gathercole (Cambridge), whose Durham PhD 'Where is Boasting?' - written agaisnt his own Doktorvater James Dunn! There's chutzpah for you!
    You waste too much time attacking your bete noire Bray - who, while he is not a Neutestamentler, has written a 500 page book on the history of biblical interpretation and lots on patristics.
    Anyway, I encourage you to read Piper, as i am going to resume doing.

  5. You can download Piper's book for free here (it takes only a few seconds):


    It's a straightforward read and it's primarily exegetical, focusing mainly on Romans and passages on the dikaio word group, erga nomou etc, with extended comment on MMT, 2 Cor 5.21, and the meaning of imputed righteousness, and 'soft' and 'hard legalism' - the latter very important in interaction with E P Sanders, and Dunn, who developed his ideas somewhat in contradistinction to Sanders (as did Wright on 'covenantal nomism'). Howard, if you think Piper doesn't know his stuff or has gotten rusty, read this, esp. from c. p. 100 forward. You will find plenty of use of Schreiner, Gathercole, Moo etc - very contemporary stuff.

  6. Thanks for your recommendation, "Anon1" (Who are you, actually?). I have just downloaded Piper's book and will try to read it as time permits. Meanwhile, here is a quote from his opening Acknowledgments:-
    "Most significant of all was the feedback I received from N. T. Wright. He wrote an 11,000-word response to my first draft that was very helpful in clarifying issues and (I hope) preventing distortions." Now what was your point about Wright's lack of cooperation? I would have thought 11,000 words was a pretty good indication of what he would publish in reply, giving Piper an opportunity to respond in advance by adapting his own argument, as he did gratefully.

    Anyway, my criticism was directed towards Bray's review - that it was unbalanced in its treatment of the two books and not written by a biblical scholar, and these points still stand. Far from wasting my time, I think my response to Peter's recommendation that his readers read Bray's editorial was a worthwhile expression of my ongoing protest about the resistance which conservative Christians often have towards engaging with genuine academic study of holy scripture - not a tendency I would ever suspect in Peter, but one that Gerald Bray may be encouraging in his audience in "The Churchman". A bete noir? "You betcha!" (to quote another recent conservative megastar).
    I have no objections to the biblical scholars you mention, whatever doctrinal outcome they support. Long may they live and prosper, chutzpah and all. They are engaged in the biblical guild's task, which is to put established interpretations to the test of disciplined exegesis. Those who stand outside that discipline and write lengthy histories of its development sometimes do so in order to dismiss its validity and to assure others that they have no need to respect its processes. That is my bete noir, and Bray seems to fit into that pattern, at least on the basis of this editorial. If I am wrong about him, please point me towards some better evidence.

  7. Howard, Bray's Sorbonne doctorate was on Tertullian and his subsequent work has been in patristic theology, the Creeds, the history of interpretation, and historical and philosophical theology. I've learnt a lot from his books, esp. 'The Doctrine of God'. For years he was a Professor of Anglican Theology in the US. He has a fine command of koine and has edited 'Ancient Commentaries on Romans'. (If you root around on the internet, you can find an excellent lecture he gave on Tertullian and the post-apostolic declension from grace to legalism). As an editor, he ranges over many subjects, not to give the last word but to make provocative comment. He's somewhat like an historical obverse of Rowan Williams, who is not a biblical scholar either - in the primary sense - but a philosophical theologian.
    Anyway, may I caution against academic hubris? The fact that someone hasn't written a PhD on a small section of a Pauline epistle doesn't disqualify 30 years of preaching, researching, writing and teaching Christian origins in British and American universities. (And I have read enough PhDs - mainly American - to know that a good deal of myopia and bluster passes for scholarship today.) Exegesis is exegesis - it isn't an Eleusian mystery. (And even I, who haven't spent years of my life studying the Mishnah and Talmud, could see at once that a lot of Sanders' comments on legalism vs. grace really missed the target when it came to describing 1st century Judaisms.)
    As for the scholars I mentioned, none of them finds Wright's exegesis on Romans 4 and 2 Cor 5.21 and other passages convincing. Schreiner, Gathercole and Moo are referenced frequently in Piper's book.
    I haven't yet seen Wright's new book so I don't know if he deals with these specific criticisms.