When Wright Is Wrong

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If you are a reader of contemporary theological works and you have not already encountered the name “N.T. Wright,” you will. Wright is the Anglican Bishop of Durham, and he is one of the most prolific biblical scholars of our day. I first encountered Wright’s name years ago while doing research on the topic of eschatology. His work on the Gospels provided a number of insights that assisted me in my own work. His magisterial book on the doctrine of resurrection will likely be the standard work on the subject for decades to come. Since my reading of Wright at the time was limited primarily to what he was saying in regard to specific Gospel texts related to eschatological issues, I would never have guessed how controversial he would soon become.

The questions raised in connection with Wright’s work on the Gospels were not unusual for that branch of biblical research. Wright, however, has not limited himself to study of the Gospels, but has also written extensively on Paul. Unlike his work on the Gospels, his study of Paul has caused great controversy. But why? What could Wright have possibly said that would create such a furor? To put it very simply, Wright argues that the church has misunderstood the doctrine of justification for centuries. Justification, he argues, does not deal with how one becomes a Christian. Instead it is a declaration that one is already a Christian. Also, according to Wright, justification does not involve the imputation of Christ’s righteousness because such an idea is nonsensical. Furthermore, our future justification is based on our whole life, or as Wright says, on the basis of our “works.” This future verdict, based on works, is received in the present by faith. The reason for the controversy, then, should be evident.

A number of brief critiques of Wright’s doctrine have been written over the last several years in journal articles, book chapters, and denominational study reports, but to my knowledge there has not, until now, been a comprehensive book-length response to Wright’s teaching on the subject of justification. John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway, 2007) fills this void in the literature.

The need for such a book is evident because the subject matter is so important and because Wright is a very popular author who has gained a hearing among evangelicals. Piper makes it clear from the beginning that he is not writing in order to score points. In fact, he includes a brief section on the manner in which controversy should be conducted by Christians. Piper himself practices what he preaches throughout the book, never letting emotion cloud his judgment. This does not mean that Piper comes across as detached. On the contrary, his passion for the truth is evident on every page, but he does not allow his passion to reduce his arguments to a shouting match.

In eleven chapters, Piper methodically examines every aspect of Wright’s doctrine of justification, carefully demonstrating where Wright has gone astray. In chapter 1, he looks at some of the problematic methodological presuppositions underlying Wright’s exegesis. He then moves on to an examination of Wright’s “law-court” metaphor, showing where Wright has misunderstood the meaning of the concepts of “justification” and “righteousness.” Wright, according to Piper, has confused that which righteousness does with that which righteousness is, and this has skewed his entire doctrine. 

In chapters 5 and 6, Piper critiques Wright’s explanation of the relationship between justification and the Gospel, and in chapter 7, he looks at one of the most serious problems with Wright’s doctrine, namely, his assertion that the basis of our final justification is our own works. Wright claims that he is saying essentially the same thing the Reformers said, only in different words. In chapter 8, Piper shows the speciousness of this claim. 

In chapters 9 and 10, Piper turns to an examination of Wright’s understanding of Paul’s opponents. These chapters are a brief critique of what has come to be known as the “New Perspective on Paul.” In contrast to Wright and others who claim that the Judaism of Paul’s opponents was a religion of grace, Piper demonstrates that Paul was confronting a deep-seated legalism. In his final chapter, Piper summarizes the content of his book Counted Righteous in Christ, setting forth the biblical case for the doctrine of imputation.

Wright has written in one place, “I frequently tell my students that quite a high proportion of what I say is probably wrong, or at least flawed or skewed in some way which I do not at the moment realize. The only problem is that I do not know which bits are wrong; if I did I might do something about it.” In this book, Piper has done Wright a great favor by showing him at least one of the wrong “bits.” 

 

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