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.