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A Response to N. T. Wright

Let’s get started on The Future of Justification - John Piper’s response to N.T. Wright. Today we’ll look at the Introduction, a section that includes all of Piper’s major criticisms condensed into a series of brief paragraphs. The outline of the book becomes clear as you read the introduction. If you’d like to read this section online before looking at my comments, you can find it here.

First off, I appreciate the fact that Piper has not written this book as a way to “one-up” Bishop Wright. He is not interested in debating Wright as a way to increase his own stature (13).

Secondly, I’m glad to hear Piper announce quite strongly that he does not believe Wright to be under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9 (15). Though Piper believes Wright’s doctrines are seriously in error (after all, this book’s purpose is to refute them), he does not question Wright’s salvation. Nor does he call Wright’s exposition of “the gospel” another gospel. (So let’s dispense of the unhelpful rhetoric of “heresy” and “false gospel” that so many uninformed seminary students use against Wright.)

What, then, is Piper’s main problem with N.T. Wright’s theology? He says,

“(Wright’s) portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize it as biblically faithful” (15). 

Piper believes that Wright’s work will lead to a kind of preaching that fails to adequately preach the gospel.

Piper’s graciousness to Wright is nowhere more evident than in his strong affirmations for the positive aspects of Wright’s work. (15-16). Piper obviously respects the Bishop. He expresses appreciation for much of Wright’s theology. (Those who critique Wright without having read him would do well to take Piper’s affirmations seriously).

Piper demonstrates a remarkable effort to be fair to Wright in this book. I am glad that Piper has not joined the ranks of many other Reformed critics who have attacked Wright’s theology without understanding the entire picture that Wright is painting. Piper rightly recognizes that Wright is putting together a different paradigm for theology altogether – one that changes the categories. Because of this shift, Piper realizes that one cannot simply take Wright’s statements out of context, compare them to the old paradigm and then declare them inferior. One must “get inside the globe and see things from there.” (17).

Piper quickly summarizes the main points of contention he finds in Wright’s theology. He takes issue with Wright’s statements about “the gospel” not being about how to get saved and about justification not being how one becomes a Christian. He believes Wright is wrong to say the doctrine of justification is not what Paul means by “the gospel.” He believes Wright is misleading people when he says that one is not justified by faith in the doctrine of justification by faith. He sees Wright’s view of “righteousness” as woefully reductionistic and Wright’s statements about future justification being based on the “whole life lived” as confusing.

In the introduction, Piper has laid out a list of complaints regarding Wright’s theology that he finds dangerous. Perhaps the biggest charge that Piper levels against Wright is that Wright’s theology lacks clarity and forthrightness. He repeats this charge several times throughout the introduction and says it again at the end: “Wright leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘ah-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity” (24).

Piper is concerned with N.T. Wright, not just because he believes Wright is in error on some important doctrines, but because he believes Wright’s theology to be misleading and unnecessarily complicated. Piper seeks clarity. He believes Wright’s work breeds confusion.

Whether or not these charges can be substantiated, we will see in later chapters…

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog

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0 thoughts on “Future of Justification 2: Piper's Introduction”

  1. It’s interesting that you and I appear to be at the same point in our lives right now, reading Piper because we’re interested in Wright. I look forward to your comments on the book, as I have a few posts on my own blog about the subject as well. Would love to hear your comments.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi Shahinian

  2. Michael says:

    I think Piper’s effort to be fair are commendable (and from what I understand, it is a far cry better than 95% of Wright’s critics). Unfortunately, despite his effort to the contrary, I feel that his book isn’t what I would hope for from someone who claims to be taking a rational perspective on how to arrive at conclusions.

    Now I realize that this post is about the introduction, but I felt that you really ought to have started 4 pages further back so I thought this would be the appropriate place to comment on the acknowledgments.

    I felt that starting from page one, (and by page one I actually mean page 9-the acknowledgments) Piper really cares most, not about framing a strong argument, but rather about convincing people. Not that I’m accusing him of trying to twist the truth, but rather that he appears to have an overblown sense of his own grasp of the truth. The content of the book starts in the introduction on page 13 but his argument starts on page 9. Anyone who disagrees (that he starts the argument here, not that he has an overblown estimation of his own understanding) simply has to realize that probably about half of the “acknowledgments” are no such thing. He starts his argument on page 9 with an emotional story about how his father preached the gospel. Now, mentioning how much his father impacted his life is one thing, but including a whole story about how his father “was a lover of the great, deep, power-laded old truths.” and that such truths included imputed righteousness is emotional manipulation, plain and simple. Was Piper conscious of doing such? I hope and honestly believe that he didn’t. Does that change what it is? No. Now to be honest, I really don’t have any (maybe much would be a better word…) problem with him framing a story about his father in that way, but I DO and very strongly so, have a problem with him putting it, not only IN a book about a controversy involving such things, but in such a deceptive place as the acknowledgments. Even my roommate who loves Piper admitted that the story was inappropriately placed.

  3. Charles says:

    Dr. Piper is to be commended by all – as he was by Bishop Wright – for at least allowing Wright to respond before going to print and then not going to print before reading the response!

    That’s certainly even handed and, as you note, better treatment than most “reformed” critics give the Bishop.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your posts on this subject.

  4. matt vander wiele says:

    I just finished the book this weekend, (Future of Justification). I felt as if for 90 % of the time Piper debated or maybe better said micro managed some of the terminolgy of Justification being declared or effective at Salvation. My favorite part was the section on second temple Judaism and the difference of the opinion between Legalism and ethnocentric culture.

    However my main concern without going into all the depth of the book is the abruptness of the ending. I t seems to just end with no summary of anything, and leads write into the appendix, i was dissapointed with how the book quickly ended with out a real good conclusion of anything. it was like he had run out of time and had to go…….

  5. trevinwax says:

    I didn’t plan on mentioning the Acknowledgements in this series. Maybe I’ll add some final thoughts at the end of this (already-too-long) series and say something about my impression.

    Regarding the ending, I thought the Concluding chapter worked fine as a Conclusion. I believe the Appendix was unnecessary.

  6. Tandy says:

    I know this tread is not dealing specifically with the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but you did bring it up as did Piper. Within his courteous treatment of Wright, Piper used these words and others to describe Wright’s treatment of the gospel and justification – “disfigured,” “distorted,” and “blurred.” Just how disfigured, distorted and blurred does teaching on the gospel have to become before Galatians 1:8-9 applies? I would like to know where Piper and others would draw the line.

    Happy New Year!

  7. Val says:

    It seems to me that Wright’s and Piper’s works represent two different genres, and that herein lies a problem. Piper, in order to expalin (and, in some respects, refute) Wright’s theology, for ordinary Christians, he has to mediate a scholarly approach and interpret its implications (as he understands them) for the individual, personal experience of salvation. So, although he recognises Wrights new paradigm, his desire to preserve “the, old, old story” in all its plain simplicity (so clearly revealed in the Acknowledgments, as Michael pointed out), leads perhaps to an oversimplification, and hence, distortion, of the effects of Wright’s proposals on the doctrinal issues addressed.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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