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A Question of Ecumenism, Theology, or Exegesis

Over the last few days Adrian Warnock has been posting excerpts from John Piper’s new book on justification, The Future of Justification. His latest seems to represent an escalation, with its title John Piper: Is N. T. Wright Preaching Another Gospel?. Adrian has maintained throughout that Piper is being gracious to Wright and is accurately representing Wright’s views.

Other than to note the escalation, however, the grace (or lack thereof) of Piper’s book (which I have not read) is not my topic. I don’t have a dog in this hunt, so to speak, because I am not nearly as concerned that one gets justification precisely right. This topic is, in my view, very susceptible to “doctrinal correctness”–a tenseness about precise terms that makes it difficult to explore. Reformed theologians in particular seem to want to make one’s precise understanding of justification they anchor point of their theology. They equate it with the gospel. I couldn’t possibly disagree more. The gospel is not a precise understanding of esoteric points of theology.

Which leads me to the actual purpose of this post. What is driving the discussion? Piper is criticizing Wright’s view on justification, and I’m not going to criticize him directly, but there is a clear tendency in Adrian’s quotes from Piper, and that is simply define what reformed theology has been up until now, demonstrate that Wright disagrees, and leave the obvious impression that Wright must be wrong.

Elsewhere, there are some who claim that Wright’s theology is driven by ecumenical goals–bringing Catholic and protestant views together. I’m not sure how well that is going, if it is true. Certainly the hardliners in the reformed camp aren’t feeling the ecumenical spirit in all of this.

But when I read Wright himself, I get a different impression entirely of his driving force. Now I need to place a caveat here. I am only a small part of the way through my own preliminary studies of this New Perspectives on Paul, and I probably won’t try to express my own opinion on some of the key issues for months. Right now I can simply say that the work of Wright answers some questions about Paul for me and raises others. I’m tempted to simply fall back to the notion that Paul was a complex character, and does not willingly fit into our theological boxes.

When N. T. Wright goes about doing his own writing he appears to me to be driven not to find or produce a particular theological result, but rather by exegetical concerns. He seems to be more careful to follow the text where it leads than the majority of writers. I’ve read. For an example of his exegetical writing, see On Becoming the Righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). For a more theological view, with Wright expressing his own view of justification, see Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism.

In response to this, we need more than theology. I have no doubt that there are reformed theologians making theological arguments, yet there are also many who are simply happy to point out that Wright fails to meet their standards of “orthodox evangelical theology” and thus can be dismissed out of hand.

But wasn’t one of the features of the reformation going directly back to scripture? At this point it looks to me like the Bishop of Durham is behaving like a reformation theologian–digging through the texts and trying to come to the best understanding possible, while the purported defenders of the reformation are left to point out just how orthodox their teaching is–by their standards.

If I’m given the choice between defending theological turf and wrestling with exegesis and trying to understand Paul in his world and mission I’ll choose the latter every time.

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  1. Hmm, I doubt that Wright’s goal is to bring Catholic and Protestant views together. The Lutherans and Vatican (led by Cardinal Ratzinger) have already done that in the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” of the late 1990s and it uses much more traditional terminology and categories than does Wright on this issue of Justification. I love the writings of bishop Wright in general, though I’ve only read one of his books on Paul’s theology, but I must say I really don’t think I even entirely understand what he is trying to say about justification, precisely because it does not fit in the normal categories with which I am so used to thinking about this doctrine. But I’m willing to give it a few more years thought…

  2. I’ve played with the new perspectives in two runs through Galatians and it did work my mind because I am pretty set in the old categories, but on the second pass I could make sense of the categories. Whether I agree remains up in the air, but I certainly can’t look down on the scholarship behind it.

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