Jesus vs. the Scholars?

John Piper & N. T. WrightWhat do you do when biblical scholars disagree with Jesus? Since Jesus is after all the infallible Son of God and Messiah, my view is that your best bet is to stick with Jesus.

John Piper argues the same way as he considers who’s right about the nature of Pharisaism in the first century. Should we believe Jesus’ negative portrayal of the Pharisees that He confronted, or should we follow the contradictory picture drawn by E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright and other proponents of the New Perspective on Paul?

N. T. Wright argues that,

The Jew keeps the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace—not, in other words, in order to get into the covenant people, but to stay in. Being “in” in the first place was God’s gift. This scheme Sanders famously labeled as “covenantal nomism” (What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 18-19).

Yet Piper contends that Jesus does not affirm that the Pharisees were keeping the law as the “proper response of to grace.” Piper writes,

When Jesus addressed the Jewish leaders of his day (Pharisees, lawyers, elders, Sadducees, chief priests), his resounding conclusion was they do not even know God. And, not knowing God, their lived-out religion (the kind Jesus is concerned with) is not “out of gratitude,” nor is it a “proper response to grace.”

When Jesus asked the Jewish leaders, “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” his answer was, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:47). This is the claim of Jesus, . . . “I am from God and I am speaking the words of God. You are not seeing or hearing God, therefore you are not of God.” . . .

This is the root reason why the Jewish leaders do not come to Christ. Their will is governed not by gratitude to God, giving a “proper response to grace,” but by their father’s will, and it is not the love of God. “You refuse to come to me that you may have life. . . . I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me” (John 5:40-43). They simply do not know the true God: “You have not known him” (John 8:55).

It is incomprehensible to me that what Jesus says about the Jewish leadership of his day in general (not every individual) could be taken seriously and yet their true lived-out religion could be exonerated from “self-help moralism” (Wright’s term). Why are they “sons of hell” (Matthew 23:15)? People don’t go to hell for “keeping the law out of gratitude” as a “proper response to grace.” People go to hell for relying on themselves instead of grace.

As much as I appreciate N. T. Wright and his scholarship, I think I’ll go with Jesus on this one.

(HT: Justin Taylor)


  • Preston Sprinkle

    “As much as I appreciate N. T. Wright and his scholarship, I think I’ll go with Jesus on this one.”

    Oh come on, Denny, that’s a bit loaded, don’t you think? You discussed Wright’s views versus Piper, not Wright’s views versus Jesus! The issue of 1st century Judaism is a bit more complicated than that (and for the record, I don’t even agree with Wright’s comment here).

  • dennyrburk

    Dear Preston,

    I meant it tongue in cheek (Didn’t you see my humble question mark in the title?). I agree that 1st century Judaism is a bit more complicated (even variegated!) than this might let on. I’m not really suggesting that Piper’s short blog or this one now settles the issue. Sorry if I gave that impression.

    Nevertheless, I think Piper’s little essay is worth reading.

    Thanks for reading.

    Much luf,

  • Dan


    I am a huge piper, but this past year, i started to dive into some of wright’s works. can you tell me exactly why people have a problem with wright?



  • Luke Britt


    Weren’t there different sects of Jewish leaders and different sects of Pharisees? Some were “bad” like the ones Jesus encountered, and some were “good”?

    I’m ignorant of much of the Jewish context so it’s easy for me to be drawn in by a brilliant man like N.T.

  • dennyrburk


    Yes, Judaism was variegated in the first century. Yes, election/grace was primary to many Jews, but some texts indicate that election/grace were in tension with eschatological justification by law-keeping.

    This is why I think Simon Gathercole’s thesis in Where Is Boasting is important. New Perspective scholars generally do not acknowledge that doing works to “stay in” the covenant is just as legalistic as doing works to “get in” the covenant. Read my whole review of Gathercole’s book, and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

    It is for this reason (and others) that I am not convinced that the NP view of Judaism overturns the Reformation doctrine of Justification as Wright and others seem to think that it does.

    Much luf,

  • jeff miller

    I like the yearbook illustration in Piper’s entry.

    on the other hand,

    the New Perspective people help us in our effort to more consistently interpret Galatians and Romans.

  • dennyrburk

    Egad, Jeff!

    In many ways, the NP has hindered more than it has helped. For all the historical insights that the NP has given concerning second Temple Judaism, it has given nearly as many biblical and theological errors. For many NP interpreters, the legalistic nature of “works of law” is underplayed. For them, the “not yet” of justification is emphasized at the expense of the “already” of justification. Some NP people caricature the doctrine of imputation then sweep the straw man to the side.

    As far as I’m concerned, the biblical and theological errors that the NP has bequeathed to mainstream evangelical theology have been grave indeed.


  • Mr. Teko

    Dr. Burk,

    Are you saying that N.T. Wright has stated that he does not believe the portrayals of Jesus interactions with the Pharisees in the Gospels? Surely not. Have you read any of his New Testament Theology, the first three volumes of which have been published? I assume you’ve read them all. If so, how can you say that?

    Seriously, whatever you think of the New Perspectives, they are probing into the issue of New Testament backgrounds, trying to understand the New Testament writings in light of the theological thought of the time. I don’t know how any evangelical can have a problem with that.

    Moreover, Wright has had much more to say about justification since “What Saint Paul Says” was published almost 10 years ago. There are aspects of classical Protestant justification he agrees with, and others he disagrees with. For example, he has argued that Luther & the Reform movement was correct (!) to use justification to argue against the medieval sacerdotal system.

    Please, I disagree with much of what the New Perspectives say, but I also can’t deny that Wright has made incredible contributions to orthodox Christian understandings of Scripture and the faith. Scholars & pastors should give his work a good, critical reading, and ignore him only at their loss. Disagree with him as you will, that’s fine, but please paint a more complete picture.


  • dennyrburk

    Mr. Teko,

    It would be wrong for you to imply that my disagreement with Wright is a result of a failure to read his writings. I have read his writings, have given them careful consideration, and still disagree with him on numerous points.

    That is not to say that he hasn’t made a contribution. Of course he has. I love it, for instance, when he takes the Jesus Seminar to task in JVG. I love his defense of the bodily resurrection of Christ in RSG; it’s brilliant. I love critical realism as an epistemological foundation for reading texts (see NTPG). He’s right on target in arguing that the election of Israel is God’s way of dealing with the problem of evil. There’s much to commend in Wright. But I think he’s all wet when it comes to Justification. I think his reading of Paul is really skewed.

    I agree with you that he’s written a lot since What St. Paul Really Said. But I disagree with you if you think his thought on Paul has taken a different direction since the 1990’s. Except for his counter-imperial readings, pretty much everything he’s written on Paul since the 1990’s is consistent with The Climax of the Covenant (1991) and What St. Paul Really Said (1997). Even his latest little book on Paul doesn’t add much to what he’s already said (you can read my review of Paul: In Fresh Perspective in SBJT 10 [2006]: 83-84). That’s why so many of us are eagerly anticipating the 4th volume in his Christian Origins series. Are you suggesting that Wright has shifted his views since these writings?

    As far as painting a “complete picture” is concerned, I’m not advocating that people ignore him or his writings. I’m arguing that after they have read what he’s written on Paul, they should understand that he’s off the mark.

    Thanks for reading and for your feedback.

    Denny Burk

  • jeff miller


    I am not sure that which I think is worth discussing in this format.

    But, when theological thinking is ahead of authorial intent it obscures the word of God rather than illuminates.

    I am much more interested in what the words “works of law,” “justification,” and “imputed,” mean as they actually appear in scripture than the meaning assigned to them by catholic, reformed catholic, or any other extra-biblical system of orthodoxy.

    So, while I do not like Wright’s sacramental lens, and I do not like the way he seems to place hope in something he calls “The Church,” I do think his take on Romans gets things right that most others miss. It (his commentary on Romans) may be the best one in print…or do I only think that because it is the last one I read?

    Before I knew there was such a thing as “the new perspective on paul,” I knew that the problem with “works of the law” in Galatians was not “legalism.” I knew that the word “justification” is not used in the Bible the way it is used in reformed theology. And I knew that the word translated “imputed” is better understood in scripture when it has been released from the straight jacket which the desperate watchdogs have tried (unsuccessfully) to place it in.

    I am not reading scripture with the intent of protecting a theology.
    I am willing to read theologians in an effort to stand under scripture.

    With love,

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