An even-handed “third way” between Piper and Wright: Michael F. Bird’s JETS contribution

July 13, 2011 | By | 16 Comments

Yesterday my copy of the latest JETS came in the mail and I was pleasantly surprised to find an article by Michael J. Bird – “What is There Between Minneapolis and St. Andrews? A Third Way in the Piper-Wright Debate” (pp. 299-309). It is one of the most engaging articles on the debate between John Piper and N. T. Wright that I have read in quite some time. To be honest, I’d become pretty bored with the New Perspective  on Paul (NPP) until the ETS annual meeting dedicated the main sessions to addressing it. The papers presented by Wright and Thomas Schreiner were very interesting to read and the interaction was quite good. But up until yesterday, I’d become bored again. Then I read Bird’s article.

Let me provide some background for those who are completely unaware of what has been probably one of the most controversial debates within the Evangelical world for the past couple of years. Maybe you’ve been living under a rock. Or maybe you just don’t swim in certain theological waters. Either way, this subject has been seen as both controversial and important. Here’s the breakdown:

Meet N. T. Wright. Wright is a British New Testament scholar who has served as the Bishop of Durham (Anglican) until he recently took an academic post at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland). He is known as one of the leading advocates for what is known as the New Perspective on Paul. The NPP basically has raised questions regarding the way in which we understand the gospel, “works of the Law,” the relationship between works and faith, the issue of whether we are to understand the Greek phrase pistis Christou as “faith in Christ” or “faithfulness of Christ” (see here for a summary), and a host of other related issues. The bottom line is that many of these questions are viewed by some as dangerously close to abandoning the Protestant gospel. For advocates of the NPP, it simply is a call for Christians to embrace what the Biblical authors actually teach. It would be impossible to provide a summary on the NPP here, so if you are interested in learning more on Wright’s position, check out his “official” unofficial I love is his work on the Resurrection (The Resurrection of the Son of God) and his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. He has been a great benefit to the Church, regardless of whether one holds to NPP of not. His work on the historical Jesus basically destroyed the respectableness of John Dominic Crossan and the “Jesus Seminar” folks (a group of people who hold to extremely liberal views regarding the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth).

Meet John Piper. For the sake of full disclosure I’ll just inform you as to the fact that I really like Piper. During a year of my undergrad, I attended a university located near the church Piper serves and had the chance to hear him preach a number of times. I’ve greatly benefited from his ministry. His brand of Calvinistic-Third-Wave-Charismatic-Baptistic-Pastor-Theologian pedigree fascinates me. I don’t agree with everything Piper has done or said, but the amount that I disagree with is minor compared to how much I agree with. At any rate, Piper takes a more “classic” approach to understanding Paul (the Old Perspective on Paul?). He wrote a book that actually addressed Wright (The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright). This was the book that probably led to Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Wright’s response to his critics, namely, Piper).

So what does Bird provide for us? He writes,

“What I want to do in this study is to look at five points of contention between Piper and Wright and offer some adjudicating thoughts with a view to establishing a modified Reformed view that acts as a middle way between the two” (p. 299)

This statement immediately caught my attention because I’m more and more intrigued by the fact that Christianity seems to be made up of many people who tend to polarize views and who tend to gravitate towards an “either/or” perspective over and above the “both/and” perspective (not to be understood as saying some subjects aren’t “either/or,” but that not all are. Take, for instance, the common understanding the Kingdom of God being both/and an “already” and a “not yet.” Christianity is full of tensions. We maintain that God is both sovereign and that human beings are responsible. So Bird is already speaking my language when he sets up a desire to provide a “middle way between the two.” I’ve read enough of Piper and Wright to think this is probably a great start.

So Bird goes on to summarize both Piper and Wright as well as to provide his own thoughts on five different subjects related to the NPP. He’s my summary of Bird, with which I largely agree:

(1) How should extrabiblical sources be used when we do exegesis? Rather than reject them completely, Bird suggests we should utilize them because “a good interpreter of a text is also a good interpreter of cultural contexts.” I think this suggestion is helpful because it stresses that we also need to reflect upon those extrabiblical sources, which can greatly enhance our understanding of the text we are actually working through. Or, as Bird writes, “background studies enable us to move from analogue to digital or from black and white to technicolor” (p. 301). So while Bird wouldn’t always agree with Wright’s interpretation of the ancient sources, he takes issue with how he sees Piper being cautious and dismissive of first-century Jewish sources without being just as cautious and dismissive when reading some of the seventeenth-century Puritans or well known Baptist preachers (Bird notes John Owen and Charles Spurgeon as examples). This point really hit home for me, perhaps because it gives evidence to the fact that good scholarship will weigh equally all secondary sources, despite whether or not they fall into the “I-agree-with-this” or “I-don’t-agree-with-this” categories.

(2) Should we think largely in regards to Systematic Theology or Biblical Theology? Once again, two perspectives dominate the theological landscape of the subject of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). On one hand, we are told to think of salvation with the ordo salutis approach (order of salvation). This would emphasizes that the subject of salvation must be concerned with the justification of individual sinners and that what is often known as “progressive sanctification” needs to be understood as a different step in the ordo salutis (I take the liberty of adding “progressive” to the subject of sanctification because most Reformed theologians hold to that perspective). This approach is largely “linear” or “systematic” in its view. For Piper, who tends to take this approach according to Bird, salvation is primarily concerned with the individual sinner’s salvation.

The other perspective stresses the historia salutis approach (history of salvation). It sees the “big picture” of God’s redemption. As many of pointed out, Wright “regards justification as a post-conversion declaration that one is a member of the people of God rather [than?] describing the process of how one becomes part of the people of God” (p. 303; I’m not sure if there should be a “than” inserted there or not, so I apologize in advance!). The historia salutis approach is best understood as seeing justification through a bigger lens than through the minute focus of one’s personal standing with God. It’s more concerned with one’s standing in the people of God.

Here is how Bird reconciles these two approaches:

“I agree with Wright insofar that justification possesses a covenantal or horizontal dimension in terms of defining who the people of God [are]… Yet the problem is not what Wright affirms but what he denies. There is no reason why justification cannot be both covenantal and initiatory at the same time… justification is indeed about initiatian into both salvation and into the church” (p. 303, emphasis his).

I love this. Salvation is concerned with both our standing with God and our standing in God’s people. It’s both soteriological and ecclesiological. But it gets better. Bird further writes,

“The best advice I can give is that we should engage in close reading of Paul that is attentive to social and canonical contexts. Beyond that I suggest that when you read Paul, do not just ask yourself the question, “What must I do to be saved?” as if that is the issue lurking behind every verse. Also ask yourself another question, “Who are the people of God?” With those two questions in our mind as we read Paul’s letters it will hopefully lead us to a more comprehensive view of Paul’s theology that integrates soteriology and ecclesiology together” (ibid.).

(3) How should we understand the righteousness of God? N. T. Wright believes the “righteousness of God” references God’s covenant faithfulness whereas John Piper views it as God’s righteousness that is imputed to believers. How does Bird weigh in? He is dissatisfied by both positions. First, he does not believe “covenant faithfulness” adequately covers the definition of the “righteousness of God.” It’s certainly found in some texts, but not all of them. Second, against Piper, Bird agrees with Moo that Piper’s view is too narrow. He writes,

“The righteousness of God, then, is the character of God embodied and enacted in his apocalyptic saving actions which means vindication for his people and condemnation for the wicked. The righteousness of God is revealed in the saving event of gospel that rectifies the status and state of the fallen creation. This includes not only justification, but also reconciliation, transformation, and new creation” (pp. 305-306).

(4) What about Imputation? This is an extremely important subject in the debate, especially coming from a Reformed perspective. As some have said, if you throw out Imputation, you throw out the gospel (or maybe it’s just me who has said that!). The short end of the debate is that John Piper believes that our justification depends upon “the act in which God counts sinners to be righteousness through their faith in Christ on the basis of Christ’s perfect ‘blood and righteousness,’ specifically the righteousness that Christ accomplished by his perfect obedience in life and death” (Piper, Counted Righteous, as quoted by Bird, p. 306). Wright takes a different approach and finds emphasis on the union with Christ motif. Michael Bird’s way of handling these two views is to suggest that since imputation is “a corollary of the biblical texts” (i.e., a logical conclusion of the biblical evidence) and since Wright’s emphasis on union with Christ is also strongly supported, “perhaps we should speak of an “incorporated righteousness”” (p. 307).

Let me just say that I’m not ready to give up the term “imputed righteousness” and I certainly love the NT motif on union with Christ. Perhaps the Reformed could spend more time emphasizing the wonder of our union with Christ and how it infiltrates so many different doctrinal subjects. Thankfully, Michael Horton wrote Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ and covers the subject significantly in his systematic theology, The Christian Faith. I should also mention that I’ll be speaking at a conference in the fall that is covering the subject of Union with Christ (the annual Association of Charismatic Reformed Churches conference). At any rate, I like what Bird is saying here…

(5) What is the relationship between faith, works, and the final judgment? This is where the debate has really caused lines in the sand to be drawn. Are we saved on the basis of our faith in Christ or on the basis of our works or on the basis of both combined? I would venture to guess that this has been the most concerning for the vast majority of conservative Protestant scholars (i.e., Evangelicals). While Bird acknowledges that Wright is “trying to take particular texts such as Rom 2:13 seriously” he also finds Wright to be “misguided” (p. 308). On this one, Bird mainly sides with Piper. But how does he arrive to this conclusion? He writes,

“I think the solution is to note the prepositions that Paul uses. Paul consistently employs dia (“through”) and ek (“by/from”) to indicate that faith is the instrument by which believers are justified (Rom 3:22, 25; 5:1; Gal 2:16). But Paul uses kata (“according to”) when it comes to the role of works at the final judgment (Rom 2:6; 2 Cor. 11:5). The works, faithfulness, obedience, and life of the believer must accord with God’s verdict at the final judgment. Thus, justification is on the basis of Christ’s work, it is appropriated through the instrument of faith, while the verdict of the final judgment is congruent with the life of Christian works” (p. 308).

I concur. Our salvation (justification) is on the basis of our faith in Christ and in accordance with our good works.

So perhaps I’m moving into the “modified Reformed perspective,” largely due to Bird’s influence. Time will tell. At any rate, Bird has given us a fantastic summary of the basic issues involved in the Wright/Piper debate and provided some alternatives for those of us who appreciate both scholars. Bird’s exegesis needs to still be weighed and the implications of his proposal reflected upon, but I can state without a doubt that this article has helped me think through this much clearer!

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Filed in: Biblical Theology, Church History, Gospel, Reformed Theology, Systematic Theology | Tags: , , , ,

About the Author (Author Profile)

Luke Geraty is a young budding pastor/theologian who serves at Trinity Christian Fellowship. Husband of one, father of five, and deeply committed to proclaiming Jesus and the kingdom, Luke contributes regularly to and Multiply Vineyard. You can follow Luke on Twitter or Facebook. Interested in having Luke speak at your church, conference, or small group? Send him an email!
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  • Watcher

    What I really liked was that you said ‘the church Piper served’. Its great to see someone NOT saying the ‘church N lead’. Modern church life seems dogged in this respect by contemporary pop business obsessions with ‘leadership’, when we know that we are lead by the Spirit of God…as people, we merely serve in different ways.

  • bystander

    I guess Piper-Wright debate on justification tends to theological a priori (Piper) vs. biblical narrative priority (Wright) discussion. I guess while Piper is much fixated on ordo salutis perspective when it comes to exegeses of relevant passages with individual salvation emphasis, Wright is trying to be open-minded theologically: he wants to follow what the text says whatever its theological outcome (to destroy or disfigure the neat theological summing-ups).
    Concerning Bird, my question is, is it enough to adjudicate just two scholars’ views to reach what the Bible teaches about justification? Well, I must say since the debate has a huge impact on thinking evangelicals Bird does a great service by doing so. I just wish a new fresh voice will come and open up a new vista. That’s what NPP should be aiming at.

  • Luke Geraty

    Yeah, I agree. It’s funny you mention that, because as I was typing this blog, I actually started by saying “Piper’s church” but then realized that I absolutely despise when other people use that phrase. It’s just so easy to write and since everyone is doing it… wait, no, bad excuse :)

  • Luke Geraty

    yeah, and both seem to have some great strengths (theological and biblical narrative). I think that’s why I appreciated Bird’s comments so much.

  • David A Booth

    Thank you for your clear and thoughtful review.

  • Timothy

    I find the lines taken by Wright and Piper confusing. Wright rejects the term “imputed righteusness” while affirming something very close to it. He says that justification is the declaration of God about us that we are righteous. What he objects to is saying that it is specifically the righteousness that God declares is ours. Piper subscribes to the term “imputed righteousness” but then strongly argues that this is moral righteousness which makes sit sound like imparted righteousness to me.

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  • Brian

    There are a number of other significant voices in this justification conversation, many of whom disagree with Wright but are in the same ball park in some way–Doug Campbell (The Deliverance of God) and Michael Gorman (Inhabiting the Cruciform God) are two (and their respective major works on justification). Gorman’s approach to justification is, I think, that fresh voice–and his style and scholarship are top notch. Not exactly “new perspective”–though some would lump him in, but has a narrative approach and views justification in a participatory sense.

  • bystander

    Thanks for replying to my comment. Fresh voices like Campbell and Gorman sound interesting. I haven’t read both but hear Campbell’s argument somewhat too convoluted and hard to assess. I frequent Gorman’s blog and like what he says. I think it’s time to read some of his books. 

  • Luke Geraty

    Have you had a chance to read Das’ Paul, the Law, and the Covenant? I have yet to read it fully, but found his summary of the 2nd Temple Judaism quite a bit different than Sanders’.

  • bystander

    No. I haven’t heard his name. The book seems a careful, scholarly book on the subject. It has a good endorsement from Richard Hays, one of my favorite NT scholars. Do you know any good review on the book available on the net? But at any rate thanks for mentioning him and the title.

  • Luke Geraty

    I’m not sure of any good reviews online, but I know that many of those who find Wright’s interpretation of the early Jewish sources to be questionable (and Sanders’, etc.) have found this book to strengthen their reasons for rejecting it (Schreiner was where I first heard of it).

    As I stated, I haven’t read it all yet, but found the parts that I scanned to be pretty good!

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  • Larry Newman

    It’s not my greatest happiness that Bird (Feb 2007) wrote “No one will be justified if they do not persist and persevere in faithfulness” (Saving Righteousness of God, p. 177). That’s a faith-plus-works condition for the justification that will be, however much, like Trent, it begins with faith.

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