I have recently begun to read N. T. Wright’s new book on justification, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. In an earlier post, I noted that this is the book in which Wright responds to John Piper’s book on the same topic. I am not posting a full review here. I only want to make an observation about the book’s tone thus far.
Last month, there was quite a bit of discussion about IVP’s release of the endorsements of the book (see also Justin Taylor’s discussion). Though endorsers touted the book as an “irenic” response to Piper, we found the endorsements to be anything but “irenic.” We withheld judgment about the book itself since it was not yet available.
Having now read through the preface and chapter one, I have to say that Wright is getting off on the wrong foot if he’s trying to be irenic. For starters, Wright employs two patronizing images to describe his theological opponents (such as John Piper) and their traditional, reformed view of Justification.
First, he compares the likes of Piper to those who think the sun revolves around the earth. Wright describes his opponents as having a naÃ¯ve confidence in their own ability to perceive and interpret the world. The sun looks like it’s moving around the world, therefore it is. The Bible appears to be teaching thus and so about justification, therefore it is. Thus Wright puts himself forward as the one who will tutor his ignorant detractors so that “the penny will drop, the ‘aha’ moment will happen, the new worldview will click into place, and all will become clear” (p. 28).
Second, Wright compares his opponents to old East German Stasi officers, men who belonged to one of the most repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world (p. 31). In his illustration, Stasi-theologians like Piper distort and shape the Bible in order to fit it into their own pre-existing theological commitments. Thus, Wright alleges, tradition does violence to the Bible’s true teaching among those who hold a Reformation perspective.
Wright also suggests that those with Piper’s view of justification often have nefarious motives for defending their position. Some, he says, are simply more concerned about maintaining their tradition than they are about basing their beliefs on the Bible (p. 21). Others defend their view of justification because of American culture wars and because they feel their whole way of life is being threatened by the new-fangled ideas of Wright and his ilk (p. 26). Others, he alleges, are simply trying to burnish their “reputations” and maintain their “positions” within the Christian subculture (p. 31).
And finally, the coup de grÃ¢ce. Wright says that those with Piper’s view of justification have distorted the apostle Paul into “a fictitious character of our own invention, cobbled together from such Pauline jigsaw-pieces as we already know and like, forced together with the power of self-assured dogma and stuck in place with the glue of piety and pastoral concern” (p. 36). This latter item seems really to bother Wright. He wants folks to know that he too is motivated by “pastoral concern,” saying, “John Piper writes, he tells us, as a pastor. So do I” (p. 27).
All of this seems to this reader to be far more patronizing than irenic. But then again, I’m only in chapter one. Maybe it will get better.
P.S. Don’t miss Doug Wilson’s hilarious review of Wright’s book. You can read here.
P.P.S. Al Gore tells us that he invented the internet. N. T. Wright tells us that he invented “New Perspective.” In his own words: “Questions about the ‘new perspective’ and its various rivals become less important. There are times when I wish that the phrase had never been invented; indeed, perhaps for Freudian reasons, I had quite forgotten that I had invented it myself . . . until J. D. G. Dunn, who is normally credited with it, graciously pointed out that I had used it in my 1978 Tyndale Lecture, in which, as I well remember, he was sitting in the front row” (p. 28).