Michael Bird on the Piper-Wright Debate

Michael Bird published an excellent article on the Wright – Piper debate in the most recent issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (“What is There Between Minneapolis and St. Andrews?  A Third Way in the Wright-Piper Debate,” JETS 54 (2011): 299-309).  The paper was read at the Atlanta meeting of ETS, and although Piper did not appear as a speaker, his presence was felt as quite a few papers were offered defending traditional views of justification.  Bird comments on the polarized nature of the debate between the “Pipeazzi” and the “Wrightonians.” (I prefer to be called a Wright-Head myself, although I do not follow him around on tour waiting on a miracle.)

Bird describes five points of contention which are at the heart of the debate.  In each case, Bird describes both “sides” and more-or-less charts a course between the two, although overall I think he leans more toward Wright.  I do not really need to comment on his first point (Piper’s objection to the use of Second Temple Period sources to illuminate the New Testament) since Piper is clearly outside scholarship at that point and Bird’s criticisms are right on target.  Bird’s third point is the still difficult problem of the kind of genitive construction Paul had in mind with the phrase “righteousness of God,” something which I am not sure can be solved on exegetical ground.  On his fourth point, I agree with Bird that imputation of righteousness is helpful theological construction built on Pauline theology.  I too flinched when Wright urged the abandonment of the doctrine as non-biblical.  Like the “righteousness of God,” the relationship of faith, works, and future judgment (Bird’s fifth point) is an ongoing problem, but I think that there is a better chance of solving exegetical problems.  There are too many texts in Paul which imply a judgment in the future for believers to ignore, for either side in this discussion.

What really intrigued me in Bird’s article was his second point.  Piper employs an ordo salutis, while Wright has a historia salutis.  In other words, Piper is constructing a systematic theology describing the theological teaching of the whole Bible, while Wright is engaged in biblical theology and showing how Paul fits into an overall history of salvation.  Wright sees the whole Bible (and Second Temple Period), Piper sees the development of a solid theological system after the Reformation.  Because of this, the two men will never be able to agree on some of these issues because their starting presumptions and overarching goals are different.

Bird cites Markus Brockmuhl as saying “whereas lesser mortals may acquiesce in losing the wood for the trees, N. T. Wright deals in inter-galactic eco-systems” (303).  Wright is able to not simply understand and communicate the “big story” of the whole Bible, he is able to bring it to bear on the theology of Paul.  I think that this is where some hear “dispensational like” ideas in Wright.  Clearly N. T. Wright is no dispensationalist in the classic sense of the word, but dispensational theology has always tried to get the “big story” of the Bible right, and then bring that story to bear on the theology of Paul.  (In the end, tt is not so much that Wright is a dispensationalist, but rather than dispensationalism is Wrightonian.)

I have always been attracted to Wright because he is one of the few biblical scholars who is an expert in both Testaments, the Second Temple Period, and church history, and manages to draw these usually separate elements into his writing on Paul (or Jesus).  And it is just this inter-galactic eco-system style biblical theology that overwhelms the systematic theology categories and calls the all into question.  I think that in doing so, Wright is properly walking in the spirit of the Reformers.

9 thoughts on “Michael Bird on the Piper-Wright Debate

  1. [nb – if this is a duplicate post, please delete – what happened to my first?]

    Thank you for this review. Helpful for me.

    Sidebar humor on Andrews University – when I did post-graduate work at the University of Chicago (ethology and religion – biology versus religious rules used in judging religious cases), I wanted to read some stuff by Hans Dieter Betz on the Sermon on the Mount. I visited someone near Berrien Springs who suggested checking the library there. Some professor on campus had it. And gave the book away to me for free! “Not worth much,” he said! But they were having some pretty heavy debates over this issue – righteousness by faith. Looked like those Adventists were risking their sanctification fighting over justification :). I wondered if maybe the Adventists might need the Betz book after all? To help them a bit? Why did I feel guilty for taking Betz away from them? In such an hour of need?

    As to the ecology at Andrews … (next).

    This is really not about Andrews. The real reason why I took interest in your post is because of my crazy love for biology and ecosystems. That was a part of my post-grad stuff (not relevant here) about how theological judgments are ecologically constrained. Or are not. My sense is that theological statements and claims are prolifically promiscuous in attempting defiance (one-ups-manship) over ecological boundaries. So much abstract and universalized platonic theology is expediently neglectful of ecology. And any other constraints.

    The problem is that ecologies can be as small as the smallest warm tip of a single melting icicle dangling from a rooftop at Andrews University during spring thaws – or ecologies can be as large as glaciated Midwest prairies so well fitted for roaming buffalo (or is it wolverines?). Ecologies do not inhabit a single and unified Euclidean plane.

    That said, here’s the crazy thing. I would not characterize Wright at the galactic ecological thinker. But Piper. I’m not de-camp with either. I don’t have a pony in this in-house theological and pay-per-view (book selling) race. And am not a good ally for either side. So that’s my ignorant take.

    Crazy how our taxa are as differential as our different theologies. Alas.

    I do appreciate your comments. Thanks!


    • “Why did I feel guilty for taking Betz away from them? In such an hour of need?”

      Never feel guilty about a free book, especially a quality one, In the interest of full disclosure, I am not an Adventist. Andrews had a quality program close to home, and great library. And I mean great, although it is missing a H. D., Betz volume…..?

  2. Haven’t you been saying that about Wright all along? That he is big picture? I pretty sure you’ve been saying that…

    • I thought so, but I didn’t use a cool phrase like ordo historia. I thought the article got it right.

  3. Phillip – thanks for playing along. And thanks again for your work reviewing the Wright/Piper stuff. No answers here. I guess the Betz book ended up in its intended ecology. I don’t remember the sequence of my visit. I went to the library. And somehow ended up in the office of a theology prof who gave me his personal copy despite the fact that I didn’t ask for it – except to read on loan. Back to you: good insight on the dispensation-like thinking of Wright. I guess that’s on loan to Wright too? :). ~ Jim

  4. Well this just makes me want to subscribe to JETS. not that I haven’t wanted to in the past but now more so. I’d really like to read the article. I’ve not read much Piper and don’t plan to. I get stuck on his attitude I think.

    I can see similarity between dispensationalism and Wright’s big story approach but there are clear divergent points. Wright sees a much more unified big story than at least classical dispensationalism (perhaps similar to progressive dispenationalism…to a point).

    So far “Justification” hold the top position in my favorite Wright books. Really appreciated and learned a lot from that book.

    • Now that you are an NT Wright expert, you ought to be able to critique me and point out my errors.

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