This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

by
Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday



Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Piper Approach on the Wright Approach


Here is a six-part interview with John Piper concerning his forthcoming book, The Future of Justification, in which he critiques the Wright Approach, that is, N. T. Wright's understanding of the Apostle Paul's teaching concerning justification.


Part 1, Who is this book for?
Part 2, Who is N. T. Wright?
Part 3, What do you believe about justification?
Part 4, How is Wright's view of justification different than yours?
Part 5, What's the problem with Wright's view of imputation?
Part 6, Finale


You may read the transcripts or listen to the audio recordings.

I am eager to receive a copy of the book and to read it, since I read an early manuscript of the book and offered comments to John Piper in response to his request. I am eager to see how John strengthened his thesis and supporting arguments. I guess that I will have to wait for a few more weeks when it will be available for purchase.

10 comments:

jgb said...

Dr. Caneday,

I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, especially since both Piper (with his "Christian Hedonism") and Wright (with his wonderfully historical approach) have been huge influences on my theological development.

First, I have gotten the impression over and over again that semantics play a significant role in this discussion. I often find myself talking to Piper as I read these interview snippets and saying, "that's not what Wright is saying!" The rub is normally words that both sides use to say different things.

I will be the first to admit that sometimes Wright is a bit muddy in some of his statements (a fact you pointed out in a previous post), but you don't have to read many more of his other articles to get a clearer picture of his orthodoxy (at least in my opinion).

Here is an example of what I consider to be a significant miscommunication. In part seven of the interview Piper says, "N.T. Wright says things like we will be justified in the last day on the basis of the whole life lived. Now he may not mean what that sounds like it means. But it sounds like it means, and will be taken to mean, what Roman Catholicism really says it means, namely that justification is our becoming righteous ourselves, so that our acts of obedience are part of the ground by which God accepts us." However, all the places where I have found Wright make this statement the context explains what he means. Consider his definition of Justification in the glossary of most of the books in his "For Everyone" series. It says, "This declaration will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life (Romans 2:1-16), but is brought forward into the present on the basis of Jesus' achievement, because sin has been dealt with through the cross (Romans 3:21-4:25); the means of this present justification is simply faith" (retrieved here). It is very clear that he isn't advocating a righteousness of our own as Piper fears. Or consider a quotation from another article, "And we now discover that this declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit..." Again, there is no departure from orthodoxy here as far as I can tell.

The astute reader will notice that these quotations are discussing two parts of justification. The former refers to the "already" part and the latter refers to the "not yet" part. Until I began reading Wright and hence found this blog I never understood the fundamentally eschatological nature of justification. This seems to be the major rub in the justification debate between Piper and Wright. I feel the Wright may have the better understanding of justification in this regard as I have yet to read anything by Piper discussing justification from and eschatological perspective.

Also, where Wright has difficult to understand you, Dr. Caneday, have shed wonderful light with your series of posts on this topic (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). As you have pointed out in your series (especially #7), there is an "on the basis of" and "according to" dimension of justification that is incredibly important. It is not a contradiction to say we are now justified on the basis of Jesus' life/death/resurrection, but that we will also be (judged and) justified according to works on the "last day." I believe this is essentially what Wright is trying to communicate. Am I wrong about this, Dr. Caneday? Have I misunderstood you?

There is, of course, much more to this debate that just this one issue, but it's late. I will probably post more on this later, but I wanted to get the ball rolling with this. I eagerly await your thoughts, Dr. Caneday.

A. B. Caneday said...

JGB,

I believe that you have correctly understood what N. T. Wright intended to convey, albeit, he was less than completely clear in how he articulated it. I am persuaded that it would be an error to ascribe to N. T. Wright the belief that humans accumulate merits with God that will be weighed against their demerits in the Last Day, and that if the merits outweigh the demerits, eternal life will be given.

As I have contended, Wright's comment concerning "the whole life lived" as the basis for justification in the Last Day is as unfortunate as it is mistaken. I wish that he would modify how he expresses the matter, but less than clear expression of theology should not be taken as anything more than that, less than adequately clear expression of theological matters.

May I offer a suggestion concerning your following statement: The astute reader will notice that these quotations are discussing two parts of justification. The former refers to the "already" part and the latter refers to the "not yet" part? This may seem merely like a venture into pointless and pedantic semantics. I don't believe that it is, however, a mere exercise in pedantic semantics.

I would substitute aspects for parts. The word parts, for most people, tends to connote "the idea of division." Thus, they think of justification now as separate from justification not yet. The word aspects will help you avoid the wrong implication. Read the two following statements, and see if what I am saying makes sense.

"The astute reader will notice that these quotations are discussing two parts of justification. The former refers to the "already" part and the latter refers to the "not yet" part"

"The astute reader will notice that these quotations are discussing two aspects of justification. The former refers to the "already" aspect and the latter refers to the "not yet" aspect"

The term aspects tends to connote phases of one singular thing, as in aspects or phases of the moon. The not yet justification is of a piece with the already justification. Justification is singular. There is not a past justification that is separate from a future justification. Not yet justification is simply the Last Day phase of what God has already declared over us in and through the gospel in the present time.

There is no more separateness or division between the now and the not yet phases or aspects of justification than there is between the first quarter and the last quarter aspects or phases of the moon. It is the same and singular moon with distinguishable phases or aspects. It is the same and singular justification with distinguishable aspects or phases, one now and the other not yet.

Make sense?

jgb said...

Dr. Caneday,

Your explanation makes wonderful sense! I happily submit to your request to modify my expression of this idea in the future. When I wrote it, I didn't know what else to say but "part." It didn't sound quite right, and I appreciate your thoughts on the matter. I really think that careful thinking like this is key to moving forward in discussions like these.

Also, I enjoyed your analogy to moon phases. That was helpful.

I will comment more on some of the other interview snippets soon (hopefully).

jgb said...

In part four of the interview Piper briefly discusses Wright's view of the "gospel." Wright defines "gospel" very narrowly as, "the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ" over against definitions of the gospel that make it a "plan of salvation." Piper is critical of Wright on this point because it seems he thinks that just because Wright defines "gospel" narrowly Wright will neglect to explain what Wright considers to be the implications of the gospel (i.e. a way of salvation open to all, etc.).

Again, this seems like a simple miscommunication. Piper has a broad definition for "gospel" and Wright has a narrow one. But it also seems to me that both Piper and Wright would hit most (if not all) the same theological high points when discussing the gospel. It's just that Wright would say that most of those high points are implications or consequences of the gospel rather than the gospel itself.

Do you agree?

A. B. Caneday said...

JGB,

You inquired, "Again, this seems like a simple miscommunication. Piper has a broad definition for "gospel" and Wright has a narrow one. But it also seems to me that both Piper and Wright would hit most (if not all) the same theological high points when discussing the gospel."

I'm sympathetic with your concern, but I would offer some observations.

First, I would suggest that, rightly understood, Wright's definition of the gospel is not narrow but broad, broader than Piper's definition of the gospel. Therefore, Wright does not always specify the range of implications and consequences. If Wright's definition of the gospel is so broadly stated that it does not include essential aspects, Piper's definition, narrower than Wright's, may suffer also, but from the opposite fault.

Second, in my estimation, as I suggested to John Piper when I returned his manuscript to him, filled with my own observations and comments, both N. T. Wright and John Piper are, first and foremost preachers. Both employ a lot of pulpit rhetoric in their writings as in their preaching and interviews. Both are quite given to using hyperbole. Consequently, both frequently speak and write with overstatement, sometimes (perhaps frequently) without even realizing this. Jokingly, sometimes I make this point by using hyperbole when I say, "They always use hyperbole all the time." Hyperbole serves our purposes well, but only if we do not use hyperbole too readily or too frequently.

I would suggest that both men would serve their purposes better if they would temper their speech and writing with greater even-handedness, a quality more difficult to maintain than to possess, because of zeal, but nonetheless essential to doing theology that leads to balance and not excess in beliefs and living among those we influence.

Third, I would suggest that biblically governed even-handedness should recognize that both men say many right things, but they, just like everyone else, cannot say everything that could be said in every context. Consequently, if one does not have universal knowledge of what the other says in all of his writings, one may easily take hyperbolic statements as wrong statements and thus misrepresent your sparring partner's actual beliefs and views. People continually do this very thing to John Piper. They also do it to N. T. Wright. Would it be surprising, then, if they would do it to one another?

Fourth, Wright may be onto something, particularly as he endeavors to identify Paul's gospel, especially in his letter to the Romans. I would suggest, however, that we should say that, as Paul presents the gospel in his Letter to the Romans, the gospel is first and foremost a message about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, how he is righteous and retains his righteousness in keeping his word of promise to the Patriarchs, and then the gospel is a message about what God has done for us in and through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Servant of the Circumcision for the salvation of the world (Romans 15:7-13).

jgb said...

Dr. Caneday,

I believe you are correct that Wright's definition is broad rather than narrow and Piper's narrower than Wright's. That makes perfect sense.

I think you make an important point about rhetorical hyperbole. In general, I think Western culture rewards rhetorical hyperbole to a fault, and therefore hyperbole is employed much more often than is profitable. In discussions like these hyperbole can be quite a destructive force, each side employing it unwisely and eliciting howls of protest in return. I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that we need more even-handedness. That was a helpful observation, Dr. Caneday.

In that same part four Piper said, "Wright’s view is a shift in emphasis. He believes in the death of Christ; he believes in the substitutionary atonement; he believes in penal substitution. But he is always backgrounding these things so that the universal lordship of Christ is foregrounded. It’s the negations he makes that are so troubling, not his affirmations." He doesn't elaborate much on that and so I don't quite understand where he was coming from or where he was going. It seems a non sequitur. Having read Piper's manuscript, do you have any sense of why he is critical of Wright on his emphasis of Christ's universal lordship? If so, what is your opinion of the criticism?

A. B. Caneday said...

JGB,

You inquired about John Piper's statement: "Wright’s view is a shift in emphasis. He believes in the death of Christ; he believes in the substitutionary atonement; he believes in penal substitution. But he is always backgrounding these things so that the universal lordship of Christ is foregrounded.
It’s the negations he makes that are so troubling, not his affirmations.
" You asked why John "is critical of Wright on his emphasis of Christ's universal lordship."

Given the remainder of the interview, my thoughts prompt two observations.

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that we are observing the sparring of two "hyperbolists." (I may have coined this expression.)

First, it seems to me that we are reading or hearing one who tends toward hyperbole respond to another who tends toward hyperbole when we read John say, "Wright’s view is a shift in emphasis." Granted, this alone is not convincing, for any fair reading of Wright yields a reasonable and proper observation that he does emphasize matters differently from how others do. Yet, the same thing could be said of virtually anyone, including any NT scholar. We do not all equally emphasize all the same aspects of the gospel.

Second, if John had stated his observation differently, he would not make Wright's beliefs sound quite so ominous. What if he had said the following? "Wright’s view is a shift in emphasis. He believes in the death of Christ; he believes in the substitutionary atonement; he believes in penal substitution. But instead of foregrounding these aspects of the gospel, Wright tends to foreground the universal lordship of Christ. It’s the negations he makes that are so troubling, not his affirmations."

Does this not sound less ominous than to say that Wright always backgrounds (pushes to the background) the death of Christ, substitutionary atonement, and penal substitution and foregrounds (brings to the foreground) the universal Lordship of Christ?

Here is my observation, then. It seems to me that here is an example of hyperbole at work. Observe also that I made a rather crucial modification in the statement with the phrase Wright tends to foreground the universal lordship of Christ instead of John's phrasing--But he is always backgrounding these things so that the universal lordship of Christ is foregrounded..

Third, those negations [Wright] makes that are so troubling are the three things that John specifies concerning justification. Here is where, it seems to me, that one should temper what I would suggest are examples of Wright's hyperbole with his more measured comments concerning justification such as in his essay, "The Shape of Justification."

Consider the following quotation from Wright that John Piper cites. Wright is engaged in hyperbole, if I have correctly read Wright's works--essays, books, etc.

"If we come to Paul with these questions in mind—the questions about how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God—it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen. The message about Jesus and his cross and resurrection—‘the gospel’ . . . is announced to them; through this means, God works by his Spirit upon their hearts."

I think that John Piper's criticism's are not warrantless. Hyperbole in biblical and theological discussions, conversations, and writings can be dangerous, especially if the hyperbole is not readily recognized as hyperbole. John Piper has been charged with hyperbole or excess, even with the publication of his first book (apart from his dissertation), namely, Desiring God. Is his use of the expression "Christian hedonism" only oxymoronic and not also excessive, i.e., hyperbolic? I realize that he protests this. Yet, is it not conceivable that to argue against objections to his coinage of the expression bears testimony to a blind-spot that makes it difficult for him to recognize how much he is given to hyperbole? Though I agree with much of what John says in Desiring God, I still find his coined designation--Christian hedonism--offensive to my ears, to my eyes, and to my thought. And as the Apostle Paul says somewhere, "I think I also have the Spirit."

Again, I say that I may be wholly wrong in my observations. But my observations of excessive expressions, especially of hyperbole, in the works of both Wright and Piper have cautioned me to measure my expressions carefully to avoid hyperbole or excess because of their deleterious or injurious effects.

John Piper's concerns how some people will read Wright's works and think he endorses a works-righteousness system is not wholly misguided. Does not his reading of Wright incline in that direction? Wright is regularly having to defend his statements. Such is the cost of excessive expressions.

jgb said...

Dr. Caneday,

I completely agree with your sentiments on hyperbole. However, I wonder if Wright's statement, "If we come to Paul with these questions in mind—the questions about how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God—it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen," is actually not an example of hyperbole.

Piper says of this statement, "So for N. T. Wright to say that justification does not come to Paul’s lips or pen when we ask him about how to find a living, saving relationship with God, I just say, No way. It’s not only misleading, it’s not true to the text and it’s going to hurt the church." But it seems to me that Piper is misrepresenting Wright here. Piper indicates that Wright says, "justification does not come to Paul’s lips or pen," but Wright actually doesn't say that. Wright says, "it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen." Wright's statement appears to be nuanced a bit more than Piper indicates. By using the word "springs" I think Wright is saying that justification isn't the first thing Paul thinks of or writes about concerning, "how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God." He doesn't close the door to any discussion by Paul of justification on this subject. He is simply saying it isn't the first thing Paul thinks/writes about.

I believe the passage that Piper quotes actually bears this out. Acts 13:38–39 (Piper's translation) says, "Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is justified from everything from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses." In Wright's ordo salutis (point 4) the effective proclamation of the gospel (i.e. call) is first. Wright says, "I have already described how Paul understands the moment when the gospel of Jesus as Lord is announced and people come to believe it and obey its summons. Paul has a regular technical term for this moment, and that technical term is neither 'justification' nor 'conversion' (though he can use the latter from time to time): the word in question is 'call'." Looking again at Acts 13:38–39 this ordo can be seen. The first event the passage notes is the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins (what I think Wright would consider the "call," for those who believe). After the "call" through which people believe they are then justified. Wright continues, "'Those he called, he also justified'. In other words, Paul uses 'justify' to denote something other than, and logically subsequent to, what we have often thought of as the moment of conversion, when someone who hasn’t before believed the gospel is gripped by the word and the Spirit and comes to believe it, to submit to Jesus as the risen Lord...For Paul, 'justification' is something that follows on from the 'call' through which a sinner is summoned to turn from idols and serve the living God, to turn from sin and follow Christ, to turn from death and believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead."

I don't mean to split hairs or drag this conversation off topic. I only wish to examine what these men are really saying, to analyze the words on which the debate turns. It seems if anyone would understand my thoughts, here, it would be you, Dr. Caneday. What do you think?

A. B. Caneday said...

JGB,

I concur with you. I think that your analysis in the last note is on target.

Perhaps I am wanting too much to give both N. T. Wright and John Piper the benefit of the doubt when I make the point that they both tend to allow hyperbole to intrude too readily in their theological and exegetical assertions.

For example, consider the following where I quote your comments.

"But it seems to me that Piper is misrepresenting Wright here. Piper indicates that Wright says, "justification does not come to Paul’s lips or pen," but Wright actually doesn't say that. Wright says, "it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen." Wright's statement appears to be nuanced a bit more than Piper indicates. By using the word "springs" I think Wright is saying that justification isn't the first thing Paul thinks of or writes about concerning, "how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God." He doesn't close the door to any discussion by Paul of justification on this subject. He is simply saying it isn't the first thing Paul thinks/writes about."

I may be using the wrong category to describe what I am observing from both Wright and Piper when I call it hyperbole. However, I take the above as illustrative of hyperbolizing one's conversation partner. You are correct to observe that Wright nuances his comment more than Piper is willing to grant him. You suggest that "Piper is misrepresenting Wright." I agree with you that John Piper is not fair to Wright, as you demonstrate.

My point, however, is to get beyond the simple fact that John has misrepresented Tom by attempting to identify why John has misrepresented Tom. I believe that we better serve the discussion not by by simply identifying the misrepresentation but by assisting the one who misrepresents the other to see why misrepresentation is taking place. I am not persuaded that John Piper is purposeful in his misrepresentation of Wright. Rather, I think that John's misrepresentation of Wright in the point you illustrate and in many more such points arises from his penchant for hyperbole. John Piper has hyperbolized Wright's comments. By this I mean that John Piper has exaggerated what Tom Wright has said. To be sure, it is a logical fallacy on John's part. However, the logical fallacy is born out of John's own penchant for exaggeration, a proclivity, I fear, of which he is not sufficiently aware. Thus, he too readily hears and reads not what the speaker or writer has said but what his hyperbole-inclined ears and eyes see and hear. He tends to exaggerate the differences between his view of the matter and Tom Wright's view, perhaps because he has formulated a template in his mind concerning Wright's theology.

I have been the recipient of the hyperbolizing of my carefully, thoughtfully, and prudently chosen theological expressions on more than one occasion, even to the point that I have been called a heretic. When such hyperbolizing happened once, I granted the benefit of the doubt that I was less clear than I thought that I had been. When it happened a second time, after carefully expressing my thoughts, I realized that the fault was not my lack of clarity. When it happened a third time with the same individual, I began to pull away from entering conversation with that person. It becomes almost impossible to have a meaningful give-and-take dialogue with a hyperbolist. Therefore, why persist in the conversation? The agony is too great.

On the other side of the Piper-Wright discussion, Tom Wright seems to have an inclination toward hyperbole also. However, his inclination is not so much how he responds to his conversation partners. As John Piper often exaggerates contrasts in his arguments, in both his preaching and his writing, Tom Wright also tends to exaggerate contrasts, often without qualifying them. For example, let's take the portion you cite from John Piper's interview. "If we come to Paul with these questions in mind—the questions about how human beings come into a living and saving relationship with the living and saving God—it is not justification that springs to his lips or pen. The message about Jesus and his cross and resurrection—‘the gospel’ . . . is announced to them; through this means, God works by his Spirit upon their hearts." This quotation comes from Wright's What St. Paul Really Said, page 116.

I would suggest that in this piece Tom Wright has engaged in a form of exaggeration. He has needlessly cast his statement in an extreme form. Consequenly, he loses many readers. On the other hand, he will also push other favorably inclined readers beyond his own more nuanced position. He could have more effectively made his point if he had qualified how he cast his statement.

I am suggesting that Wright could and probably should anticipate more reflectively how people will respond to him. He could nuance his arguments more carefully to avoid the kind of responses that John gives as you well illustrate.

Now, hyperbole is a perfectly acceptable rhetorical device (referring to spoken word) or figure of speech (referring to written word). We use hyperbole to emphasize a point. However, we need to use hyperbole sparingly and guardedly, precisely because of its ease of abuse, either by the one who uses it or by the one who receives it.

I know people who have used hyperbole so excessively that I no longer have any sense when they are telling the truth or falsehoods. This is an abuse of hyperbole by the speaker. I avoid ever engaging such people in conversation.

Here is a biblcal example of what I would call hyperbole. "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus" (John 1:17). John draws a stark contrast between Moses and Christ, as though "the law" and "grace and truth" stood antithetical to one another. It is hyperbolic with a point, to draw a sharp contrast between Moses and Christ Jesus. Also, it is hyperbolic with good reason, for it is in the prologue of the Gospel where it is purposely cast in hyperbolic form to draw the reader's attention. John intends to tease out its hyperbolic nuances within the Gospel itself. I believe that if we read John's Gospel rightly, we will understand why John frames the contrast so starkly, but also, we will understand that the contrast is not one of antithetical contrast, as though the two are opposed to one another. Instead, the antithetical contrast is rhetorical in nature.

As for the remainder of your note, I concur. You make excellent points concerning Wright's ordo salutis. I think that I understand what you are saying. As I view the matter, you and I are not in disagreement. I am simply offering a different level of analysis of what is going on in the conversation between John and Tom. My objective is to try to help others see what I endeavored to help John see about his conflict with Wright, when I offered comments to him in his manuscript. Many of John's disagreements with Tom arise because of personal blind-spots, failing to realize that he imposes upon Tom Wright his own template of expectations from Tom, born out of his own failure to realize that often Tom Wright employs hyperbole in his arguments, something of which Tom Wright himself may not be fully cognizant.

We must avoid reifying either Tom Wright's hyperbole or John Piper's hyperbole. Otherwise, we will likely respond with our own hyperbole and then find ourselves with a canyon-wide chasm between ourselves and them, when the differences are far smaller than they seem to be. I stand much closer to both of them than either of them may think. If this is true, I also believe that the two of them stand closer to one another than either of them may suppose.

jgb said...

Dr. Caneday,

Thanks so much for your observations. I have enjoyed this discussion immensely.

I care very much about discussing topics such as these with grace, extending the benefit of the doubt to those I am engaging. Like you, I have experienced discussions where I was the only one with such concerns.

My aim as a follower of Jesus is to love God and others. My goal in theological discourse is no different. I feel compelled to go the "extra mile" in thoughtful consideration of my counterpart's views. This seems to me so simple, yet so rare. You seem to share this aim.

I wonder if there are any books you have read that discuss ideas such as this or if you might share some life experiences that helped you understand the need for clarity, precision, and the benefit of the doubt.