Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why I think Wright is correct and Piper misses the point

Started Wright's new book, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision late last night and kept myself awake way too long reading it!

While the opening chapters could have been more economical with words (Steph, you can stop that knowing nod), the many anecdotes made for fun reading. The description of his bumpy but now good relationship with Dunn was especially interesting. I thought his opening shot, which essentially compares Piper and his ilk with the flat earth society, was risky, and indeed already one or two reviews of the irritating and condescendingly judgmental tone are appearing, i.e. those written by people who wouldn't know a hermeneutic of love if it barked at them and shagged their leg.

I actually have a lot of time for Piper, not necessarily some of his doctrinal decisions, but his integrity and love for Christ is admirable. Of course, I always enjoy reading Wright so I'm so glad that a decent and respectful tone is being maintained.

The essential point Wright appears to be making at the start of his book is, I think, spot on. This is how I would describe it: Alasdair MacIntyre wrote the following amusing illustration in After Virtue.

I am standing waiting for a bus and the young man standing to me suddenly says: 'The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.' There is no problem as to the meaning of the sentence he uttered: the problem is, how to answer the question, what was he doing in uttering it? Suppose he just uttered such sentences at random intervals; this would be one possible form of madness. We would render his action of utterance intelligible if one of the following turned out to be true. He has mistaken me for someone who yesterday had approached him in the library and asked: 'Do you by any chance know the Latin name of the common wild duck?' Or he has just come from a session with his psychotherapist who has urged him to break down his shyness by talking to strangers. Or he is a Soviet spy waiting at a prearranged rendez-vous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact...(p. 210)

Paul's Gospel is much like the single scene of a man saying to another what is the name of the common duck. The important matter, the crucial step in our interpretations is what scenes we put around it, into which story we fit it. In the same way that 'Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus' will mean one thing if the scene before shows the man as a Russian spy, or another if the man is coming straight from shyness classes where he was told to just speak to people, so with Paul's Gospel. If words like 'righteousness', 'Law', 'justification', 'promise', 'righteousness of God' etc. are put in the context of Luther's question about how to find a gracious God, they will tend to mean one thing. But if these words are placed within a story which is about God's covenant promises to Israel, her purpose through God's promise to Abraham to bring blessing to the clans of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3), her exile, the Prophetic promises in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel of return from exile, the vindication of God's faithfulness and his covenant people, the gift of the Spirit, the universal acknowledgement of YHWH and the renewal of the covenant etc., those words will potentially mean something different, something bigger which includes that beat of God's gracious and redeeming love, which Luther so poignantly grasped. It is this latter approach which can better explain the flow of thought in, content and shape of Paul's letters, it better resists anachronism, solves exegetical conundrums, and leads, ultimately, to a healthier and more robustly Pauline Gospel.

This is, in a nutshell, why I think Wright is on the money, and why Piper has missed the point.


At 2/14/2009 2:15 AM, Anonymous Andy Rowell said...

Thanks for this. I noticed as well Michael Bird reflecting on Wright's book today.

Doug Wilson on Wright's New Book - Follow Up

Doug Wilson on Wright's New Book

At 2/14/2009 2:31 AM, Anonymous Josh McManaway said...

Thanks for the review.

At 2/14/2009 7:40 AM, Anonymous Nick said...

I would encourage you to check out Doug Wilson's (hilarious but dead on) reviews of Wright so far...he thinks Wright and Piper speak past each other too often and that both are much closer to each other than they realize...Piper is actually as big story, metanarrative as Wright is (he certaintly does NOT miss the point, I'd just send you to his writings if you actually think that!) and Wright is certainly concerned with individuals who are under God's judgment and find grace through Christ's representative obedience apart from their own deserving.

At 2/14/2009 8:55 AM, Anonymous steph said...

Wright should employ you to write for him. You'd write what he wants to say so much better than he possibly could.

(He's hardly a stick figure - little circles would have been more appropriate:-)

At 2/14/2009 12:05 PM, Anonymous volker said...

Amen, preach it brother!

At 2/14/2009 1:25 PM, Anonymous metalepsis said...

Great use of the 'after virtue' illustration, I am going to have to nick that from you, and use it in a presentation!

I'm giving you credit now, so I can get all the glory after the presentation...LOL!


At 2/15/2009 7:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'... written by people who wouldn't know a hermeneutic of love if it barked at them and shagged their leg.'

Great line! I will definately nick it and use it myself.

Tony Johnson

At 2/16/2009 8:30 AM, Anonymous reflectivechristian said...

While I certainly do not agree with Piper on justification (nor with Wright in the end), I think the grand narrative is too "grand", to really be the major contributor to linguistic usage. Of course, it is my conviction that the narrative serves as the background, not the foreground of Paul's letters. Luther, mistaken as he was to emphasize the gracious of God as the primary context for understanding justification, was rooted in the text. IMO Wright, for all his good aspects, I think tries to bring grand narrative to a conscious and deliberate level in these letters, when it is best reserved for more of the subconscious idea that puts all of Paul's ideas, but not determinant for the language. In other words, IMO Paul's ideas are affected by the grand narrative, but Paul's ideas exhibit somewhat of an independence in expression (if that makes any sense whatsoever).

At 2/16/2009 9:37 PM, Anonymous Adam Morton said...

Personally, I enjoy how often Luther gets dragged into this without people bothering to, you know, read very much of him. It's as if we all magically know what Luther said because, uh, we just know what Luther said.

So here's a question: why does MacIntyre's illustration apply to Paul, but not to Luther?

At 2/17/2009 10:46 PM, Anonymous WES ELLIS said...

You nailed it.
I think that Piper and Wright are, more often than not, asking much different questions concerning the text. I believe Wright frames his questions in the bigger picture of the Biblical narrative while Piper frames his in the post-medevil/post-reformation narrative which spawns from the nagging question: "where am I going to go when I die."

At 2/18/2009 12:33 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

And Owen, perhaps we can chat on Skype at some stage. i would love to dialogue more with you on this.

At 2/18/2009 12:33 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Nick,
"he [Piper] certaintly does NOT miss the point"
He does so!

Hey Owen, you raise a good point which I half agree with. But I'm running out of time so I am taking the lame option of just saying that I half agree!!!

Hi Adam,
You also have made a terrific point, and one worth pursuing. Thanks. Would you deny that the hermeneutical tidal wave that followed Luther's wake did not largely focus (in ters of justification) on the question of how an individual sinner can be saved?

At 2/18/2009 4:39 AM, Anonymous Adam Morton said...


No, I think that's largely correct. But Luther and the tidal wave that followed him are not necessarily the same thing. As it happens, just today I heard a lecture in which Lutheranism was described (by a Lutheran) as "the history of the rejection of Martin Luther." So then who really has a good handle on the fellow?

I'll put that remark in a different form, more relevant to the current discussion. Krister Stendahl was, I think, more or less right that Paul did not generally suffer from a tortured conscience in the way we usually understand that term. The trouble is, neither did Luther. Of course he's been presented that way to all of us, but that man just doesn't come through in the writing for me. Doesn't mean that Wright would agree with Luther, or that we should, but also doesn't mean that the bombshells he dropped were of the character we've learned to expect.

At 2/18/2009 4:03 PM, Anonymous reflectivechristian said...

Probably not. I would much rather avoid the conversation and just claim your avoidance is because I am right. J/K

Just message me next time you are free and you see me online, if I don't message you.


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