Wright Misrepresents Piper in Interview

In 2007, John Piper wrote a book critiquing N. T. Wright’s views on Paul’s doctrine of justification. The title of that book is The Future of Justification (which you can download for free here). In 2009, N. T. Wright will have published his response (which I noted here and here).

Today, Trevin Wax has an interview with N. T. Wright about his response to Piper (HT: Mike Bird). It’s an interesting interview, but it looks like Wright hasn’t responded too well to Piper’s work. Wright has several critiques of Piper’s views on justification that are quite simply incorrect. For example, here’s how the interview ends:

Trevin Wax: What is at stake in this debate over justification? If one were to adopt Piper’s view instead of yours, what would they be missing?

N.T. Wright: What’s missing is the big, Pauline picture of God’s gospel going out to redeem the whole world, all of creation, with ourselves as part of that.

What’s missing is the big, Pauline view of the church, Jew and Gentile on equal footing, as the sign to the powers of the world that Jesus is Lord and they aren’t.

What’s missing is the key work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the already-justified believers to live with moral energy and will so that they really do ‘please God’ as Paul says again and again (but as Reformed theology is shy of lest it smack of smuggling in works-righteousness again).

What’s missing is an insistence on Scripture itself rather than tradition . . .

There are so many problems with Wright’s depiction of Piper’s views that it’s difficult to know where to start. Almost every line is a misrepresentation.

Wright says Piper misses the fact that Paul’s gospel goes out to redeem all of creation with ourselves as part of that. Yet Piper points readers to his expositions of Romans on page 167 of The Future of Justification, and I think Wright would do well to read Piper’s sermons on Romans 8:18-25 (here, here).

Wright says Piper misses the big Pauline view of the church that includes Jews and Gentiles “on equal-footing.” Again, Wright might take a look at Piper’s sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22 (here).

Wright says that Piper misses the key work of the Holy Spirit who enables justified sinners to live godly lives. Again, Wright could give some attention to Piper’s work on Romans 8 that explains “How We Walk According to the Spirit” (here, here). Or, here: “Our Spirit-wrought fruits of obedience are ‘things that show . . . that one is in Christ'” (The Future of Justification, p. 119).

Wright says that Piper is more beholden to tradition than to scripture. Yet on the relationship between scripture and tradition, Piper says this in The Future of Justification:

‘I do not mean to treat the Reformed confessions as having authority on a par with Scripture. What has been taught in the past does not settle what should be taught in the future. Scripture, rightly understood, remains the sole infallible authority in these matters. But I do want to affirm that when Wright gives the impression that the biblical texts that connect justification with works have not been rigorously handled both exegetically and theologically, it is misleading. In fact, in my view, his own references to justification “by the whole life lived” or “by works” seem unreflective compared to the history of Reformed exegesis’ (p. 115).

Anyone who’s read The Future of Justification knows that Piper makes his case on the basis of biblical exegesis, not on the basis of an appeal to tradition.

It is clear that Wright still disagrees with Piper, and it is his right to do so. Wright would do well, however, to represent Piper’s views a little bit more accurately. I don’t think it will be very helpful to anyone if this is the way that Wright’s forthcoming work engages Piper. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


  • Darius T

    The more and more I hear of this NT Wright guy, it sounds like he just likes to hear himself talk and is a contrarian for the sake of controversy. Isn’t he pretty much irrelevant?

  • Denny Burk

    No, he’s not irrelevant. He has done a lot of work that is helpful, and that is why so many evangelicals listen to him. I just think he’s wrong on Paul’s doctrine of justification.

  • Nick

    Hey Burk,

    Are there any parts of Wright’s view of justification that you appreciate or find helpful (i.e. his stress on the fact that most of the Paul’s discussion on justification takes place in the context of jewish and gentile relations)?

  • Ben

    If interaction with Wright has taught us anything, it is that he is prone to be sloppy in his language. (Note that I am NOT saying he is not a careful scholar.) So, in interviews, he comes off as sloppy. He came off that way in his earlier written works as well, before he learned to be more careful.

    My personal opinion is that he tends to exaggerate or overstate in settings where he does not have the space to generate words that stand up to academic rigor. Knowing this, I would be prone to speak less and write more, but Wright might be counting on the charity of his hearers to clarify his words with his writings.

  • Dave Moore

    The Bible vs. tradition discussion is a poor way to frame things. Everyone is beholden to some tradition, even those who work hard to do careful exegesis of Scripture. Sure Piper is part of a tradition, but so is Wright.

  • Chris Donato

    Seriously, you expect Wright to go digging through Internet archives when Piper wrote a book directed at him supposedly dealing with this entire issue? From the sound of it, methinks Piper maybe could have waited a few years to publish in order to cull all this material together and present it accordingly. It might have served the traditional view a little betterÒ€¦

  • Paul


    Thanks for carry on this discussion. I appreciate the irony of a man in an ecclesiastical pink-collared shirt touting that he is not beholden to tradition.

  • Scott

    I will admit that I know very little about N.T. Wright. I must also say that I attend BBC and hear Pastor John speak most every week, so I am familiar with his views.

    I am concerned with anyone who knows Piper who contends that he bases his beliefs on tradition rather than scripture. I am also concerned with how folks dismiss Wright, particularly in light of James 3:9-10.

    We should give grace to those we try to communicate with; I know that I need so much grace with my words. As teachers though, Wright and Piper should know that they will be judged more strictly. May they both be careful with their words and true to the scripture with their beliefs and arguments. And most importantly, may both of them love Jesus and make much of Him.

    But for the record, I am disappointed that Wright so misrepresented Piper in this case. The nature of his complaint also shows us that it is not simply a lack of rigorous research which brings him to this conclusion, but a lack of general familiarity. I don’t think you need to be a member of Piper’s church to understand his devotion to scripture.

    Grace and Peace!

  • Russ Ware


    Seriously, you expect Wright to go digging through Internet archives when Piper wrote a book directed at him supposedly dealing with this entire issue?

    I was thinking exactly the same thing when I read Denny’s post.

    Dave Moore:

    Everyone is beholden to some tradition, even those who work hard to do careful exegesis of Scripture.

    Amen! And some are more aware of/honest about it than others. In the context of this discussion, I would also suggest that most everyone includes some degree of ‘works’ in their understanding of saving faith, some are just more aware of/honest about it.

    As for Paul’s (#9) wry comment regarding Wright’s attire… the pink clerical shirt does suggest some irony. πŸ™‚ But, perhaps there is a subtle message…

    Wright is not saying that tradition is bad or that he (or we) should not be beholden to it in proper order.

    The irony is when those who have great respect for Tradition (Anglicans like Wright, for instance) are more willing to re-evaluate their traditions in light of Scripture, than some (certainly not all) in the Reformed stream who do claim to not be beholden to Tradition at all.

    I would suggest that Sola scriptura is a myth. Prima scriptura (which is more what the reformers really had in mind, and why I don’t like the sola scriptura slogan) is more realistic, measurable, and in line with our historic faith.

    I am consistently baffled at the obvious betrayal of even prima scriptura by those who would most vigorously wave the banner of the Solas.

    I would suggest, in line with David Moore’s comment, that we are all beholden to one tradition or another. The point is to be honest about and aware of it, so we can allow Scripture to inform and re-shape our traditions when need be.

    An alarm bell may be ringing in the form of a pink shirted Anglican… but some just keep hitting the snooze button.

  • Jason

    Chris and Russ,

    Piper wrote a book dealing with Wright’s writings on Justification, that is, he spent a lot of time “digging through” all of Wright’s writings on this matter. It seems like a matter of courtesy to know what you are talking about before you say it.

    And all Dr. Wright needed to do, as has been pointed out, is to pick up Future Grace, one of Piper’s biggest books, and read it.

    It doesn’t seem like that much to ask if you are going to make a sweeping, errant statement as Dr. Wright did to first actually know what you are talking about.

  • Martin Downes

    The comment about tradition at the end of the interview (“WhatÒ€ℒs missing is an insistence on Scripture itself rather than tradition . . .”) is somewhat disingenuous.

    If you differ from Wright in your interpretation of Paul he will tell you that you are following tradition rather than Scripture. He regards his reading of the texts is the biblical one (I know, who doesn’t?) due to his discovery, pre-Sanders, of reading the “righteousness of God” in Romans in a quite different way than the reading offered by centuries of Reformed exegesis. But it is somewhat brazen to write off centuries of Reformed exegesis in a few sentences.

    What the interview cannot do, but I assume that the book sets out to do, is to really substantiate this claim.

    I also assume that anyone familiar with the writings of Piper will be shaking their head at what Wright claims is missing if you adopt Piper’s view.

  • Denny Burk

    Chris (#8) and Russ (#13),

    Yes, scholars do expect other scholars to take into account as much material as possible when representing someone else’s views. That is why in The Future of Justification Piper interacts with numerous books and articles that have been written by N. T. Wright. That’s just the way that good theological polemics are done. Moreover, since Piper directs readers to take into account his expositions on Romans (p. 167), it’s entirely appropriate for these to figure in to Wright’s characterization of Piper’s views.


  • Russ Ware


    Thanks. I agree with what you’re saying fundamentally. But there is a limit and a balance. Your post seemed a little bit over-the-top in this regard, with numerous links to sermons, others writings etc… I would expect for you to be much more familiar with Piper’s works than Wright.

    Wright’s theological work is not really concerned with a refutation of Piper. He turns his attention to Piper specifically now because of a specific Piper book. That context should be considered.

  • Denny Burk


    I culled those quotes from sermons in about 10-15 minutes. We’re not talking about a great deal of work here.

    My guess is that Wright is using overstatement in this interview and probably attributing to Piper a caricature of Reformed Theology. I will be very surprised if Wright’s book isn’t more conversant with Piper’s other writings. My contention is that a knowledge of those writings does not support the charges leveled in this interview.


  • AlanK

    Come on, Denny. You owe us better than to create suspicions of Wright based on his interview with Trevin. I haven’t come across any other NT scholar who raised the alarm today over this.

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    One might want to be careful here, Denny. You come to the table already arrayed against Wright’s position, and so that’s going to color a lot of what you hear him say. In this case I don’t know that Wright is saying “if you don’t have my view, you will necessarily be missing these things altogether in your Christian experience” – as if Reformed theologians couldn’t believe that Jews and Gentiles should be at the same table. Wright is arguing, rather, that these things will not be in the forefront of your understanding of Justification, and he argues that they should be because this is the Pauline context.

  • Russ Ware

    I would add that Wright’s ‘what’s missing’ comments all seem to me to have, at their root, a particular view that is generally associated with Reformed Christianity: a view of redemption that is almost completely focused on individual souls, to the neglect of the restoration of the whole created order, an exegetical approach that can overly decontextualize not only Paul but Moses as well, and a view of justification that is imputation over infusion.

    If Piper is not in line with these distinctions, then it’s news to me. Piper and/or Reformed doctrine might be right on in these matters, and Wright wrong (heh, heh). But I don’t see how these comments reflect obvious misrepresentation.

    As for the Scripture v. tradition… I’ve said enough on that already. πŸ™‚

  • Wonders for Oyarsa

    In my experience in reformed Presbyterianism at least, the idea of a restoration of the whole created order is more in the forefront than in many other evangelical circles. Perhaps this is different with Reformed Baptists like Piper – I’m not sure. But, if I were a Presbyterian (which I’m not), I might think it unfair being lumped in here.

  • jeff miller

    Hey Denny,

    The reputation battles aren’t that great.

    It seems like interactive verse by verse analysis of Scripture would be more rewarding and more productive. To bad we don’t have a good format for such for the likes of Piper and Wright or for Bible commentators in general.

    It seems that this could be set up with a function the individual reader could use to block a source that is consistently unhelpful and yet (especially on difficult passages) sample a wider range of possible interpretations when desired.

    Yours in Christ,

  • Russ Ware

    Oh definitely! I have a number of Reformed Presby pastor friends of the more sacramental type. They are conservative in theology, historical in liturgy, big on Calvin, but NOT on the same page with the Reformed Baptist types on any number of things. I was talking with one of these guys just a couple of weeks ago who just shook his head over the whole Reformed Baptist phenomena. Not sure what to do with that, I’m just saying…

  • Denny Burk


    There is careful analysis of the text and theology in both Piper’s and Wright’s works. Their books (and Piper’s sermons) have been the main forums for the exegetical discussions.

    Maybe I am not understanding what you mean by there not being a “format” for these discussions.


  • Russ Ware


    Oh, this is such a fascinating area of discussion!

    Does the Bible teach that the earth will be destroyed or exposed? And, what does that mean? 2 Peter 3 is a fascinating passage that touches on issues of the true nature of election and saving faith (God’s will that all should reach repentance,) as well as the restoration of creation. In his omnipotence, is God’s will not always realized? If not, what self-constraint is in operation? Can we say that the whole created order will be restored without embracing universal salvation for all humans? (I think we can, just from an English usage standpoint.) Also, fire is used as a purification metaphor with some regularity in Scripture.

  • Darius T

    “GodÒ€ℒs will that all should reach repentance.”

    The difference here is between God’s general will and his specific will. He DOES generally want all to come to repentance, but that does not mean all will come. But He is willing to wait until all people from every tribe and nation have been given the opportunity. 2 Peter 3 doesn’t tell us that all will repent (other Scripture tells us that some will never repent). But it does tell us that the physical earth will be destroyed. Paul does say in a couple of his letters that every knee will bow and confess Jesus as Lord in the end, but that doesn’t mean they repent. Look at the rich man and Lazarus… the rich man never repented even when in hell, he just asked for a momentary soothing of the heat.

  • Russ Ware


    I am pretty much in agreement with everything you have written here, except that 2 Peter 3 does not say explicitly that the earth will be destroyed. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. That’s partly why I think this is such an interesting subject for discussion.

  • Ranger

    I know that DTS grad Ben Blackwell of the blog “Dunelm Road” is serving as Wright’s assistant in working on the Paul book and seems to imply that it will be sometime in 2010.

    The problem with Wright is that much of his stuff in the Origins series is so good that you want to like everything he writes…but that’s the problem, we tend to be less discerning on his Paul stuff because his stuff of Jesus is really good.

  • GLW Johnson

    I hope now that ‘Reformed’ devotees of the good bishop will stop claiming that Wright is even remotely ‘Reformed’. He is, by his own admission ,NOT in harmony with Calvin or the Reformed confessions on the critical doctrine of justification.

  • Brian Krieger


    At the risk of opening more than is bargained for on this thread, what kind of a comparison are you making? Are you saying that Denny misrepresented the thoughts and views of the manifesto? or the writers? or…? Just thought I’d clarify.

  • Brian


    I was saying that Denny misrepresented the views of Darrell Bock for a radio interview he did with him (as Bock says in the comments), and he also misrepresented Gordon Johnston in a seminar he went to on Genesis 1 (as Johnston says in the comments). I just find it funny how Denny tells one of the greatest scholars in the world to represent another’s views accurately when Denny himself has failed miserably in this regard. It’s kind of like the speck and the log if you ask me.

  • Darius T

    Brian, exactly where is Denny wrong in saying that NT Wright (one of the most overrated scholars in the world, in my opinion) misrepresented Piper? That’s the issue at hand, no matter how much you may wish to obfuscate it.

  • Darius T

    Also Brian, if you want to muddy the waters, you still might want to be fair. Please notice Denny’s comment #11 in the Bock comments… we all have our moments of misrepresentation (I’ve seen it a lot in these comment threads), but as long as we correct the record (which Denny did fail to do with Johnston, it appears) and are correctable, that is the bigger issue at stake. The ball is in NT Wright’s court regarding his misrepresentation of Piper.

  • Alan K

    Darius, what makes a scholar overrated? Is Wright footnoted too much? Has he hoodwinked too many other scholars? Has he sold too many books? Did he BS his way from Oxford to Cambridge to McGill to Oxford to dean to canon theologian to bishop? Or is it just that his views on justification have made the universe a less secure place? Is there some special interpretive privilege located somewhere in the world of theology that he is bereft of? If he is overrated then God help us–we are all overrated!

  • Denny Burk

    Brian (#11),

    I stand by my comments in both instances. I do not see that there was any misrepresentation in what I wrote. If you can find something that is a misrepresentation, I’d be happy to correct it.


  • Darius T

    Alan, “overrated” refers to the importance put on a person/place/thing by someone else. He is probably a brilliant scholar, yet he can be overrated. For the football fans out there, Brett Favre is a great QB, but he’s also overrated. Likewise, NT Wright is a brilliant theologian, but people generally overrate his writing or, more importantly, his impact on the world or Christianity. He seems to write on issues and pretend like what he’s saying is either something new or different from his peers are saying (this current deal with Piper is an excellent case in point). He writes a bunch of words which really tell no one anything new or shed much new light on a thoroughly discussed topic (like justification).

  • Alan K


    Having read Wright for 20 years I fail to see where he is overrated. I don’t always agree with him, but he is quite good at giving reasons for the things that he believes and for what he concludes in his research. The fact that such a kerfuffle has been raised over his writings on Paul seems to imply that he is a man to be taken with utmost seriousness.

    More than any other scholar, Wright was responsible for the Jesus Seminar kind of fading away into oblivion. More than any other scholar, Wright has raised the level of discourse with regards to biblical interpretation and hermeneutics amongst evangelicals. I see these as good things and reasons to be thankful for the man.

    If there is someone else who is more deserving of the mantle that Wright currently carries as the most influential biblical scholar in the church, then let us discover that person by the persuasion of their writings. But for the time being, I see him as so much more than Favre. He’s Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan until someone proves to be his match.

  • Darius T

    Admittedly, you are much more familiar with the man than I, since I only first heard of him in the last year or two. I’m not basing my opinion on my own reading of him (since I have never read him nor intend to do so), but from what I have heard from pastors/theologians I trust and from the limited quotes of Wright I have read. Thus far, I have yet to hear a coherent explanation of the differences between NT Wright’s view of justification and the traditional Reformed view. And his comments further make me think that he’s a straw man artist (perhaps a brilliant one, but one nonetheless).

  • Russ Ware


    Favre? Well… he’s no Romo, but… πŸ˜‰

    Regarding your comment#44…

    “I have never read him nor intend to do so”

    Now THAT explains a lot!

  • David Rogers

    Denny said:

    “Anyone whoÒ€ℒs read The Future of Justification knows that Piper makes his case on the basis of biblical exegesis, not on the basis of an appeal to tradition.”

    I guess I don’t have to read Piper. I’ll just call him “overrated” and be done with it.

  • Darius T

    David, the snide comments aren’t necessary. All along, I had said that, based on his comments and my impressions of him, he was largely irrelevant to evangelical Christians. I personally know of very few Christians who have read anything by him (much less heard of him), and since my time is better spent reading books that interest me, I have to rely on the judgment of trusted individuals to inform me about those books and authors I don’t have time for. Same logic applies to books like The Shack…

  • Darius T

    Am I the only one who doesn’t have time to read every single book or author?

    It would be one thing if this was the first time anyone mentioned NT Wright and his “controversial” opinions. But the preponderance of evidence before me indicates that he says a lot of nothing and invites or makes up controversies (maybe to sell books?). The interview above merely confirmed my suspicions. I detest authors who are contrary for controversy’s sake or who take 300 pages to say something that a better author could say in 10 pages. I’m sure he’s great in academic circles which generally thrive on loquaciousness and throw-away verbiage, but it seems like the normal layperson wouldn’t find him particularly useful. My own pastor said exactly that in reference to one of his recent books… “He takes 250 pages to say nothing new or particularly helpful.” And that’s coming from someone who reads voraciously. Why would I waste time reading a redundant author?

  • Russ Ware


    My brother, if you don’t want to read Wright, or don’t have time too, that’s cool. I think some of us are just a bit taken aback that in that context you would presume to have so much to say on the subject, and with such strong opinion. Denny posts any number of things on subjects or people that I know little about. I sit those out. πŸ™‚

  • Darius T

    Russ, see comment #1… I made my future comments assuming that people read that first one, which makes it pretty apparent that my familiarity with NT Wright is slight.

    Could someone PLEASE explain what is so unique or interesting about Wright’s take on justification? After all, his comments above indicate that he doesn’t even understand basic Reformed views on the subject, so I am guessing he’s not saying anything particularly new??? It would seem that this is all a mountain out of a mole hill. You say tomayto, I say tomahto…

  • Darius T

    “I think some of us are just a bit taken aback that in that context you would presume to have so much to say on the subject…”

    Also, please recall the context in which my comments were made: ON A BLOG COMMENT THREAD. I’m not pretending to be some academic on Wright or his views, just bloviating about my impressions of the guy. If I am way off-base, that wouldn’t surprise me in the least. So far, no one has given a very useful defense of his work besides “I’ve read him for 20 years and find him awesome” or “He’s the greatest Biblical scholar in the world.”

    Let’s start with my question above…

  • Russ Ware


    Well, personally, I think much of the debate on justification for the last 500 years has been mountain out of a molehill. Sometimes I think we are just addicted to be separated. And this is to our great loss.

    Wright is significant because I have a bunch of his books on my shelf… and because Denny says he is!

    Finally, you’re right about the context of your comments. But regardless of context… even if we were sitting over a pint at the local pub, talking about this for an hour or so… if you were to make a statement like “I’ve never read the guy and don’t intend to”… we would give you a hard time.

    You have the right to keep posting away.

    We have the right razz you for coming across like a less than fully informed hot-heat… sometimes. In love. πŸ™‚

  • Brian


    Both the scholars you were speaking of said you misrepresented them. You even apologized to Bock. Why try to hide it and not just admit it?

  • Russ Ware

    By the way… we’re all less than fully informed, and most of us are significantly less informed than we let on. You were just so honest about it! πŸ™‚

  • Daniel

    Denny, in light of Trevin’s question (“If one were to adopt PiperÒ€ℒs view instead of yours, what would they be missing?”), I suggest that Wright wasn’t in that closing comment trying to ‘represent’ Piper–and that therefore neither did he ‘misrepresent’ him.

    Rather, Wright’s comment was offered as a diagnosis of Piper’s views and various emphases. I understand that you would disagree with the diagnosis, but that does not turn it into a ‘misrepresentation’.

    One can diagnose open theism, for example, as having a defective concept of sovereignty. But the open theist cannot reply–that’s a misrepresentation! we affirm divine sovereignty! for what is put forward is not an attempt at representation, but an interpretation–a diagnosis.

    Just a thought.


  • Michael


    Thanks for your comments on Wright. Sorry for the late comment. I realize I’m quite late in the discussion. I just have a quick comment.

    I’m not sure whether it is fair to require that Wright sift through Piper’s sermons in his critique of his views. As far as I know, Wright was and is critiquing Piper’s views as published on the topic. One could just as easily critique Piper for not listening to all of Wright’s sermons, SBL presentations, interviews, etc…Or we could just assume that it is adequate to expect each party to represent their view accurately in writing.

    BTW – I’m NOT one who blindly follows Wright. While I like him on a good number of issues, he, like all of us, is not infallible – as his response to Gaventa’s and Hays’ book this year at SBL showed.

    Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

    – Michael

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