Monday, February 23, 2009

Tom Wright: Justification 1

Forasmuch as I have blogged through John Piper's The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, it seemed good to me also, having received in the mail my copy of Tom Wright's rejoinder, Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision, to write unto thee in order, most excellent lover of Pauline theology, that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein Piper and Wright have instructed.

Chapter 1: "What's all this about, and why does it matter?"
Illustration 1: learning the earth goes around the sun
Wright begins with a beautifully patronizing introduction, as we might expect of a Brit (or a blogger). Actually Wright is fairly civilized about it, as Piper was also very civilized. These are both good men, godly people, I think we can agree, both of which are very convinced they are correct. I agree significantly more with Wright than with Piper, but they are both good eggs.

Wright calls Piper "friend" (5) and says of his work, "he has been scrupulously fair, courteous and generous in all our exchanges" (11). Wright notes that he writes as a pastor just as Piper does (11). Wright suggests there develop a "Christian ethic of blogging" (10) in relation to some of the more vituperous attacks on him online (physician heal ourselves).

By the way, although Wright obviously wrote this chapter before it happened, the response to Scot McKnight's blurb on the back was an example of the "neo-Reformed" attacks. The blurb goes like this: "Tom Wright has out-Reformed America's newest religious zealots -- the neo-Reformed -- by taking them back to Scripture and to its meaning in its historical context. Wright reveals that the neo-Reformed are more committed to Tradition than to the Sacred Text. This irony is palpable on every page of this judicious, hard-hitting, respectful study." For some of the McKnight fall out, see here.

Anyway, Wright's opening illustration is about someone who comes to your house to stay the night and who has never heard the idea that the earth goes around the sun. The person listens politely to your ideas with some alarm, then takes you out in the morning to show you the sunrise and tell you that you really should not pay too much attention to new theories and such but go with the tried and true of experience.

Delightfully patronizing, but he goes on in softer tones. It really doesn't come off as in your face as you move on. Here is a great quote: "I used to tell my students that at least 20 percent of what I was telling them was wrong, but I didn't know which 20 per cent it was" (4). I'm sure the rest of us would be glad to tell him :-)

His main points with this starting illustration are these:

1. The kinds of things that Piper is telling us are safer to stick with than Wright's new fangled theories are, in fact, traditions (6). "The greatest honour we can pay the Reformers is not to treat them as infallible... There is considerable irony, at the level of method, when John Piper suggests that, according to me, the church has been 'on the wrong foot for fifteen hundred years'. It isn't so much that I don't actually claim that. It is that that is exactly what people said to his heroes, to Luther, Calvin and the rest. Luther and Calvin answered from scripture, the Council of Trent responded by insisting on tradition" (6-7). I critiqued Piper similarly.

2. We are not the center of the universe (7). To treat the doctrine of justification of ME by faith as the center of things is to get things out of focus.

As the first half of this first chapter comes to a close, Wright reminds his detractors that the "new perspective" actually entails quite a bit of diversity within it, from Sanders, to Dunn, to Wright, to others. There is no monolithic enemy to shoot at.

Illustration 2: taking all the puzzle pieces out of the box
Wright's second illustration is less patronizing... until he gets to the East German secret police. He talks about a test you had to take to be part of the Stasi. You had to fit blocks into the appropriate holes. "When the test was complete, all the blocks were slotted into the frames; but it turned out that, while some of the ex-Stasi officers were indeed quite intelligent, most of them were simply very, very strong" (15). :-)

So Wright notes the absence of Romans 2:25-29 and 10:6-9 in Piper's book, very important pieces for Wright. He mentions the importance of participation in Christ for Paul, consideration of echoes of the Old Testament that go beyond the actual quotes Paul makes, and Wright gets to his signature idea, Paul's understanding of the story of Israel as key.

Illustration 3: mistaking a resonance for the actual note played
Wright ends the chapter with one of those illustrations that tells you right off he's a smarter person than you are. He talked of how when you play, say, a low A on a piano--if you have the loud petal down--you will hear resonances of the A an octave up, then the E above that, then the next A, and so forth...

Clearly he means to say is that the Reformation giants heard true resonances of Paul but occasionally mistook the resonance for the key note. He ends the chapter with words like these: "There is no such thing as a pure return to the Reformers. They themselves have been heard and re-heard repeatedly in echo chambers that they would not have recognized" (20).

The solution? "[W]e return to history... It's time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions" (20-21).

Herein Wright reveals that he is still modernist, all too modernist. As a Christian reader, this approach does not, in my opinion, get him where he thinks it gets him. Nevertheless, it does, as he says, get him more toward the historical meaning of the text than Piper's method does.


Bob MacDonald said...

Hi Ken - I always enjoy your reviews - thanks. It saves me a lot of time. I like your stories too but I haven't given them the time they deserve yet. I was reviewing some of my own and my style has changed in the last 5 years - so I am not sure what to do with some of the verbiage I am guilty of.

Now on this post: "It's time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions"

I think this is a nice summary of what I have come to. But - I can't read with first century eyes without significant shifting of the 4th century lens that is lying at a distance from me and the 16th century eyepiece that reformers and anti-reformers insist on putting in front of me.

The question I want to ask is what hit these people that they wrote as they did when they did? Psalm 114 comes to mind: what is it to you, sea, that you fled, Jordan, that you were driven back, hills that you skipped like deer, little hills, like lambkin?

james petticrew said...

"beautifully patronizing introduction, as we might expect of a Brit" ... aren't you Americans meant to be against racial stereotypes types since the Messiah got elected???

Ken Schenck said...

Don't tell me you don't know the type, James, the "patronizing git" stereotype... absolutely confident that everyone but them is an idiot. There are the other stereotypes too--the guy that gets knocked over on his bike by someone and he apologizes.

When I lived in Durham, my friends usually said I didn't come off as a typical American (very loud and vocal, very self-assured about things they really didn't know anything about, very ethnocentric, narcissistic and demanding of having it their way in restaurants). I'll let you guess which of the British stereotypes I more fell into... :-)