Piper and N.T. Wright

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last posted April 22, 2014, 4:44 a.m.
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I have long been a fan of John Piper and his Desiring God ministry.

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I enjoy Piper both at a theologian as well as a teacher. He has a knack for going deep but remaining accessible and all the while remaining utterly humble.

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It's also safe to say, Piper espouses a theology of which I am very comfortable and familiar with. The surprises I get from Piper have been only to serve a deeper understanding of my own faith, not a challenge to it. So it's not surprising he appeals to me.

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Recently I have been hearing more and more about N.T. Wright as a theologian, most notable for his work on the Pauline letters.

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N.T. Wright seems a fair bit less accessible to me so far than Piper but he clearly has some divergent views of most of Christendom in terms of his views on Justification. I am not sure if this is my misunderstanding of him or indeed is what the New Perspective on Paul is all about.

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I feel like it's best if I read his works directly and form my own opinion, but I am a bit intimidated by reading volumes that are 1,700 pages long!

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It seems that Piper and Wright have been in disagreement. Piper wrote a book in direct response to some of N.T. Wright's work. Wright in response to this wrote an even longer book but it's not clear if he is directly responding to Piper or just expanding on his earlier ideas.

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Piper on N.T. Wright and an introduction to his book, The Future of Justification (free download):

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Here is an interview with N.T. Wright where he partially responds to Piper's book:

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Just watching those two segments between the two, my immediate reaction is that Piper seems more genuine in seeking the Truth and having dialogue while N.T. Wright comes across as arrogant and proud.

I recognize that this are very small slices of a much larger debate but my immediate reaction is to be turned off by Wright and what seems like a lack of humility.

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I am anxious to read this interview as well as the previous two interviews linked in this article.

I do want to dive more deeply into understanding the differences between these two men on the topic of Justification and try to stay open minded despite my biases for Piper and against Wright.

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I thought I'd join in and give a few thoughts on this topic, spurred on by Patrick's stream of the same name.

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In contrast to Patrick, I'd never heard of John Piper before I heard about the controversy between him and Tom Wright.

I've not read John Piper's book against Wright but the impression I got right from the start of Wright's book-in-reply is that he was somewhat frustrated at being misrepresented.

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That Piper (and others) directed their criticism specifically at Wright is presumably because his books relating to the New Perspective have achieved popularity outside academia. I don't know how much of Piper's criticism applies to the New Perspective in general versus Wright's specific views (which aren't necessarily the same as, say, Sanders or Dunn).

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The New Perspective came out of a shift in understanding Paul's writings in the context of Second Temple Judaism.

In particular, some scholars felt that many of the Lutheran and Reformed views interpret Paul too much in the context of 16th-century Roman Catholicism rather than 1st-century Judaism. In other words, they project on to Paul's opponents too much of their own opponents.

So the New Perspective is firstly an attempt to better understand what 1st-century Jews thought and hence what Paul's issue with them might be.

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The idea is that if we better understand Second Temple Judaism, we'll better understand what Paul was arguing against and if we better understand what Paul was arguing against, we better understand Paul.

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It would seem to me that this is worth pursuing, even if there may be some disagreement about what we find along the way.

So it is odd to me when people suggest it's not even a path worth pursuing (or is dangerous to pursue).

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One interesting exercise is to read Galatians and ask yourself what Paul is referring to by "works of the Law".

And in Galatians 5–6 in particular, what does Paul tell the Galatians to do and what does he tell them not to do?

Another interesting exercise is consider what Paul says in Galatians 3 about Abraham and his readers' relationship to him and why that relationship exists.

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I just read through the interview I had mentioned previously and there are many good things that I fully embrace that were said by Wright.

In fact, from what I have read of Piper and other Reformed theologians, I think they would agree, not disagree as Wright says they do and would several times.

I now must read Piper's book for myself to see exactly what he says. I seriously doubt Piper would suggest we read Paul as if he were born in the 17th century.

I am starting to quickly get the sense that Wright and Piper, or at least the commentators on this debate are conflating things and there might not be all that much difference at all between the two and in the case where they are disagreeing in their own words, it seems like they might be talking past each other or misunderstanding one another.

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"Sweeping statements about world views in first-century Judaism are precarious."

So in the interview (video) posted earlier Wright dismisses Piper rather flippantly. I am just now reading the chapter where Piper is delineating in a very nuanced and articulate manner, the dangers of using extra-biblical sources that are much less studied to then interpret Scripture itself.

He is absolutely not dismissing the idea of attempting to understand historical context and world views of the day, but is highlighting the dangers of putting these sources on the same, if not more important footing that Scripture itself.

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It is a challenge when a word takes on a different meaning in our larger discourse than what it does in the biblical text.

For example, the word "church" nowadays has a lot of meaning not covered by the word ekklēsia. It is dangerous therefore to read all senses of "church" into the word when we see it in the text.

Similarly with "justification".

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Alister McGrath, in his wonderful book Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, says the following (also quoted by Wright):

The doctrine of justification has come to develop a meaning quite independent of its biblical origins, and concerns the means by which man's relationship to God is established. The church has chosen to subsume its discussion of the reconciliation of man to God under the aegis of justification, thereby giving the concept an emphasis quite absent in the New Testament. The "doctrine of justification" has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins.

There is nothing wrong with using the word "justification" in this sense but we must be careful reading this sense into Paul's use of it (or into our translation of dikaiōsis and cognates).

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It's also a challenge that words like just/justify/justification are cognate with right/righteous/righteousness in Greek but not in English.

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But perhaps the key ambiguity in the New Perspective debate is that pistis can be translated as "faith" or "faithfulness" and in particular pistis Christou can be translated , "faith in Christ" vs "faithfulness of Christ".

Compare, for example, Romans 3.22 in ESV:

the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

vs NET:

the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.

(the NET has a lengthy footnote explaining the ambiguity with references).

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In many ways, it's misleading to single out Piper and Wright in the naming of this stream. There is a long-running debate with many scholars on either side.

But because of Wright's popular works, Piper came out with a popular work critical of Wright to which Wright wrote another book in response.

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Moo claims that Wright has made the background of the New Testament the foreground and the foreground the background.

He means this negatively, but there is a positive aspect to this (at least the first part). Namely that Wright draws to our attention aspects of Paul's thinking that have largely been downplayed or neglected. I think that is a large part of Wright's appeal for me.

To use a musical analogy, like Wright is so fond of doing: imagine a sonata whose first and final movements are well known but whose slow movement is rarely listened to. By my attention being pointed to the slow movement, I not only develop a new appreciation of that movement but for the entire piece as a whole and I see a unity I was otherwise blind to.

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Wonderful video of a conversation with Tom Wright and Richard Hays, moderated by Michael Gorman:

Hays, in some ways, is even more New Perspective than Wright here.

I could watch Hays and Wright in conversation over the text for hours :-)

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This article is a about five years old but found it helpful in reading a summary of the different positions held by Piper and Wright.