Assessing the Piper-Wright Debate on Justification

Next week, Boyce College is hosting a theology forum during its Wednesday morning chapel hour. We have invited three distinguished guests to discuss N. T. Wright’s new book, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. As I have mentioned before, Wright’s book is in large part a response to John Piper’s book The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. I will moderate a panel featuring Tom Schreiner, Mark Seifrid, and Brian Vickers. Here’s the flier for the event. Even though the event is aimed at our Boyce College undergraduates, seminary students are welcome to attend. We will reserve some time at the end for Q & A with the audience.

After the event, we will make the audio available on the Boyce College website. In the meantime, if any of you out there in blog-world have a question that you would like for me to put to our panel, put it in the comments section below, and I will select some for the panel discussion.

Our panel members are members of the Southern Seminary faculty who have published widely on the Pauline theme justification, and here’s a brief introduction to each of them.

Tom Schreiner‘s work in Pauline studies is vast and well-known. Not only is he the author of a significant commentary on Romans (BECNT), but he also has a commentary forthcoming on Galatians. In addition to numerous articles on Paul’s letters, he has written a guide to Interpreting the Pauline Epistles (Baker), a Pauline theology titled Paul Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology (IVP), and The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law.

Mark Seifrid‘s contributions to this topic are also well-known. D. A. Carson hailed Dr. Seifrid’s book Christ Our Righteousness (New Studies in Biblical Theology, IVP) as having a “prophetic quality.” Dr. Seifrid was an editor and a contributor to the 2 volume work Justification and Variegated Nomism [vol. 1, vol. 2](Baker). N. T. Wright disputes in particular Dr. Seifrid’s contributions in this set (concerning covenant and righteousness language in Paul). In addition to numerous articles, Dr. Seifrid has also authored Justification by Faith: The Origin and Development of a Central Pauline Theme (Brill) and The Pauline Writings: An Annotated Bibliography (Baker). Last year, Dr. Seifrid wrote an article for Concordia Theological Quarterly titled, “The Narrative of Scripture and Justification by Faith: A Fresh Response to N.T. Wright.”

Brian Vickers produced a book in 2006 titled Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness (Crossway). Dr. Vickers’s contribution to this conversation in fascinating as he defends a fairly traditional model of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, though he does so in a way that interprets key Pauline texts in a non-traditional way.

I am looking forward to this conversation next week, and I am looking forward to reading your questions.

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One final postscript. This event gives a glimpse of the kinds of things we are passionate about at Boyce College. The heart and soul of what we do at the College is to train young men and women for gospel ministry. We love the Bible, theology, the church, and the Great Commission—and all of it for God’s own glory. If you or someone you know desires undergraduate training for this kind of ministry, please come and visit us or contact us at any time. The Spring 2009 Boyce Preview Conference is April 17-18, and you can register online here.

19 Responses to Assessing the Piper-Wright Debate on Justification

  1. Denny Burk April 9, 2009 at 2:03 pm #

    I am subscribing to these comments so that I can read your questions. Thanks.

  2. David Rogers April 9, 2009 at 2:32 pm #

    Thank you for opening up the opportunity to pose suggestions for questions.

    Ask them to reflect on how much doctrinal cognizance is necessary for justification by faith to occur.

  3. rafe April 9, 2009 at 2:35 pm #

    Which one of those guys is representing Wright’s position? (sounds like an ol’ fashion lynchin’ to me) haha

  4. rafe April 9, 2009 at 2:37 pm #

    By the way, I actually appreciate Seifrid’s contribution in Justification and Variegated Nomism.

  5. David Rogers April 9, 2009 at 2:49 pm #

    Follow-up:

    What are the thresholds of doctrinal incompetence that a biblical church should raise suspicion concerning?

    E.g. What should a pastor explain concerning the legitimacy of “faith” in Jesus that a Oneness Pentecostal professes? Add that the hypothetical Oneness Pentecostal is a person of very little theological sophistication being raised from cradle roll in the Openness Pentecostal tradition and functioning at an average to lower intellectual capacity but professes a deep love for Jesus.

  6. John Holmberg April 9, 2009 at 3:34 pm #

    What are the practical consequences in believing either Wright’s or Piper’s proposal?

    In other words, whichever side one believes, how does it flesh out in everyday life? What influence does it have on day to day living, mission, etc?

  7. John Holmberg April 9, 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    Here’s another one:

    Given that the panelists most likely side with Piper in this debate, are there any aspects of justification that Wright gets correct and Piper misses?

    In other words, what are the weaknesses of Piper’s articulation and the strengths of Wright’s? What has Wright contributed to the discussion that reformed evangelicals should heed to?

  8. Denny Burk April 9, 2009 at 3:58 pm #

    Clarification: The questions need to relate specifically to the Justification debate between Piper and Wright. Thanks.

  9. rafe April 9, 2009 at 4:22 pm #

    Does the NT emphasize justification by imputation or justification by union? (Ask Seifrid that one.)

  10. David Rogers April 9, 2009 at 4:47 pm #

    Do either Wright or Piper address the amount of doctrinal cognizance or doctrinal incompetence aspects of faith that the grace of justification uses as a means or condition for salvation? If they do not, should they address such questions in order to provide a fuller analysis of the doctrine “justification by faith”?

  11. mike April 9, 2009 at 4:57 pm #

    help me remember something – is schreiner the one who’s romans commentary advocates “infused” righteousness or something like that instead of “imputed” righteousness? i remember there was something weird about schreiner and righteousness a couple years ago, even at ETS, but i can’t remember what it is.

  12. mike April 9, 2009 at 4:59 pm #

    oh btw, neither piper nor wright get the covenant language of the old testament verses they cite. how could they? they’re going at it from the 16th century instead of the ancient near east and 1st century

  13. John Holmberg April 9, 2009 at 5:46 pm #

    Mike,

    What implications does the covenant language of the OT have for the passages of the NT they cite? In other words, what are they missing and what is Paul communicating?

  14. mike April 10, 2009 at 9:56 am #

    @john,

    curious that you are questioning how my comment is relevant for NT passages. piper displays a much more calvinistic, double-predestinarian view than wright, and often appeals to the OT verses to demonstrate his view. unfortunately for piper, passages like mal 1:1-5 are not slam dunks for calvinism – that passage and most of the others he cites have so much more to do with covenant than the arguments for individual, double-predestination he tries to prop up with them.

    hmmm, now that you’ve called me on it, piper’s probably the more guilty party of running roughshod through the OT.

    but, since double-predestination is piper’s bread & butter, and since it’s always a part of his discussions on righteousness and romans, you can see why a proper view of covenant matters, and for that matter so does some hermeneutical skill in OT studies.

  15. David Rogers April 10, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    A few thoughts and questions regarding the upcoming forum.

    First, it is indeed a good thing for the students at the college to be exposed to theological discussions in a chapel forum. There is a real need for more exposure to theological discussion. We sometimes restrict congregational gatherings to a kind of “worship” setting where we encounter the Lord less cognitively and thus, as a result by omission, come to think of our religion and spirituality as somehow above and beyond theological discussions. On the other side however, there is an equivalent temptation and tendency for some academicians and doctrinaire-obsessed pastor-preachers to reduce “worship” to nothing more than lectures on doctrinal summation. All that to say, your forum is a good thing, and I wish I could attend.

    Since this is occuring in a chapel setting, is it safe to assume that this will be attended by all the students of the college and not just those already familiar with the particular Wright-Piper confrontations? Will this be the first exposure for some of the chapel attendees to the whole discussion topic? If so, I have the following concerns churning in my brain.

    First exposure to a topic can have a formative, lasting and permanent impact on thinking. I still struggle with objectively evaluating certain topics due to my first exposure to them. My first exposure to one particular topic was made by someone I admired and deeply respected for his theological perspectives. For example, my gut reaction to an understanding of Anabaptists has been shaped by a good friend making particular comments about them that I have now come to realize through actual research was stereotyped. By having admirable scholars (and moderator) in the forum evaluate N.T. Wright and John Piper, I wonder how the “naive” “uninformed” audience will evaluate both Wright and Piper. Will this forum give a fair representation to both of them?

    Is there enought time in this chapel time to (1) introduce the topic (justification and the current academic debate about it), and (2) objectively introduce the two opposing viewpoints fairly and then (3) evaluate the merits and demerits of each side? Will Wright, in particular, be given a fair shake? (Please note: I have not done enough research in the matter presently to make up my mind who has the better case. My current default position probably sides with Piper, but my ornery skeptical side desires to give Wright a decent hearing.) Can this be done in an (assumed) hour’s time? Is the deck stacked against Wright?

    Would this forum be better expanded to three sessions: One to introduce the topic; one to give the differing positions; one to evaluate. I’m thinking about those in the audience who will be exposed for the first time to the whole matter. I sincerely hope that an academic institution, such as Boyce College, would seriously recognize its responsibility to objectively educate its students. Otherwise, if the jury has already decided that Wright is wrong, then Boyce College has restricted its education to pre-decided dogma decided by its pre-approved scholarship. (Please note: I am not saying that this is the case. I don’t know. I’ve never met any of the faculty. I do believe that I have the right as a Southern Baptist pastor to raise the question about the quality of the education offered at any institution that my Cooperative Program dollars support. The question is legitimate. I make that particular point, because I have read and commented on enough Southern Baptist blogs to know that some raise heck when someone dares to raise any question that would dare to question any beloved institution that is run by those with whom they agree. All those who raise questions must be liberals.)

    I sincerely make these comments and raise these questions with sincere appreciation that I even have the opportunity to make them. I do enjoy this blog even though I may disagree with some of the perspectives. At least, I have the opportunity to do so. For that I am grateful, and I hope that the forum is a success.

  16. Wayne Roberts April 10, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

    This sounds interesting, but isn’t the Remembering Calvin mini-conference the same time and day?

  17. Mike Bird April 11, 2009 at 5:10 am #

    Denny,

    Mate, I SO WISH I was there for that discussion. SBC is spoiled for choice to have two of the top evangelical Pauline scholars in Seifrid and Schreiner around and Brian Vickers is no slouch either.

    I have several questions for the dynamic trio:

    (1) [For Vickers and Seifrid] How does your understanding of imputation differ from that of Piper?

    (2) [For Seifrid and Schreiner] Is it possible to maintain that God’s righteousness has a covenantal character or covenantal element without reducing God’s righteousness to his covenant faithfulness?

    (3) [For Seifrid and Vickers] If Jesus Christ is justified in his resurrection, and if we participate in that justification by virtue of union with Christ, does that require us to reconfigure our basic understanding of justification as the imputation of the merits of Jesus Christ to us?

    (4) [Seifrid and Schreiner] If we are justified by faith at conversion, are we justified by faithfulness (specifically Christ working his works in us) at the final judgment?

    PS, the SBC should organize a conference on Galatians in the near future!

  18. Tyler W. April 13, 2009 at 5:42 pm #

    Yes, please ask Dr. Bird’s questions. All four of them. They get right to the heart of the matter.

  19. Rob de Roos April 15, 2009 at 6:33 pm #

    Christ the Center at Reformed Forum interviewed Guy Prentiss Waters on Feb. 27th and March 6th on NT Wright’s doctrine of justification. It does seem that those general evangelicals interested in a redemptive historical perspective are who are not necessarily confessionally disposed tend to be more sympathetic to NT Wright. It does seem that Wright is significant upgrade of the Wrede-Schweitzer consolation of NT scholarship that pits the traditional Reformed understanding of the forensic and legal aspects of justification against union or participation in Christ. As the New Perspective on Paul tends to peter out over the next several years, NT Wright’s response to Piper’s book appears to be some what smarmy, condescending and special pleading.

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