For those keeping tabs, this is Part 2, following on from my earlier post, "The Battle for the Soul of Evangelicalism".
I'm going to devote a post to each book in turn, Piper's first, then Wright's. Be aware I'm still thinking through a lot of this material, so if thoughts and impressions noted here are half-formed or could use a bit of nuance, that is why.
The first thing to be noted about Piper's book is that, like Wright, he is respectful from the get-go. This is the case even to the extent that it appears Piper sent drafts of his book to Wright for critique to make sure he had not misread or misunderstood where Wright is coming from. That, to say the least, is good form.
Piper, from the outset, lists the disagreements he has with Wright's theology and then tackles them in turn. I won't list these exhaustively, but will note the standouts.
1) For starters, he addresses Wright's cosmic theology- that the gospel is not a soteriology but an announcement that Jesus is now Lord of all things. Piper doesn't disagree that this is true, but is gravely concerned at the theological and biblical (and practical) implications of denying that the gospel is a message about how to get saved. His argument boils down to: gospel means good news; if you tell me that Jesus is now Lord of the universe and I understand what that means, I will fear for my life and soul because I, being a sinner, have no place in that universe; for a sinner, news like this is emphatically bad news until you tell him how to get saved.
Reading that particular chapter I had the peculiar experience of first sympathising and then becoming increasingly distressed the clearer the point became. One may be sympathetic when one reads lines like, "Not until the gospel preacher tells the listener what Jesus offers him personally and freely does this proclamation have the quality of good news." (p86). But then the language becomes progressively creepier- "The good news was not that Jesus died and was raised- that was emphatically bad news at this moment! What turned that bad news of death and resurrection into good news was the teaching- the doctrine- that by faith alone this life and death of Jesus could be the ground of the justification of the ungodly, not condemnation. "(p87-8)- and creepier - "..the sinner will say, 'What good is that for me? How can that help me or any sinner?' If the gospel has no answer for this sinner, the mere facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus are not good news. But if the gospel has an answer, it would have to be a message about how the rebel against God can be saved." (p89)
It seemed to me a disturbingly utilitarian view of the gospel and I couldn't help thinking: if I were one of the disciples on Easter Sunday, having come face to face with the Risen Christ, "What good is that for me?" doesn't quite seem the right thing to ask. I was somewhat gratified to find I was not alone in having this reaction. Wright addresses it himself in his book (which I will treat in detail in my next post on this topic), analogising it to two men who are both agreed on the brilliance of the sun relative to the earth, but one of whom believes the earth goes around the sun while the other believes the sun goes around the earth. An apt metaphor. There is a serious problem if, in my mind, the gospel is all about me. There is a perilous and subtle error here. Where the gospel comes to release me from sin and hell (which is precisely the self turned in upon itself) it will have the effect of opening me to God, not confirming me in my egoism. If I believe that I am so important that God Himself revolves around me and that all of salvation history has been leading up to that glorious moment that is my conversion, my soul is in serious danger. If the Paschal Mystery is not at the centre of my faith, Heaven help me! As Lewis says somewhere, if the Christian looks at himself honestly he will see a small and wretched creature, but it is far better not to look at oneself at all. Fix your eyes upon the Crucified and Risen Jesus. Therein lies joy and salvation.
There is another danger here, I think. Wright identifies it as the belief that we are justified by believing in justification. I think most Protestants would rightly decry such an idea, and I do not believe that all, or even most, fall into that error. But there are some who do. And there are others who come close to it. I would say Piper falls into the latter category. Rightly, he declares that we are saved by trusting in Jesus, not trusting in our own beliefs about Jesus. Nonetheless, dangers lurk. Notice how Piper sees the proclamation of the gospel in the quotations above. To proclaim the facts of the Paschal Mystery is not sufficient. The sinner also needs to be told "how the rebel against God can be saved."; the good news of Christ's death and resurrection is bad news until you are told "the teaching- the doctrine". Only then does it become good news. This is perilously close to saying that the it is not the central events of Christianity themselves that save us but rather ideas about them. The good news stands in danger of becoming the good technique- not news or a proclamation but a how-to. The full extent of this is demonstrated in a later footnote- "'If you believe, then such and such will be true of you,' is how the gospel speaks to unbelievers." (p99) If that is the essence of how you preach the gospel, then you are not bearing witness to Christ crucified and risen, but rather indulging in a peculiarly Christian form of self-help- 'do this and your life will be better'.
2) Another major problem for Piper is imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ. Wright doesn't believe in this at all (contra Luther, Calvin and any Protestant theologian worth his salt), regarding it as a simple category mistake based on a misreading of Paul. Piper goes to work on this, exegeting a number of appropriate texts to support the classical Protestant interpretation of them. His best work here is on 2 Corinthians 5:21, a very close and convincing piece of exegesis in which he builds a very solid argument based on the parallelism between the two parts of the verse, arguing that since Christ is sinless and yet is said to have been "made sin", likewise we, though being sinners, are said to have "become the righteousness of God" in the same way i.e. without affecting or changing our ontological reality. There is more to be said about this verse, and I have a good mind to devote at some point a post to that verse a lone and the different interpretations I have seen of it in various quarters (I can think of at least three quite different readings I have seen of it). Piper in some places seems to say or imply that 'sinner' will remain our ontological reality even after the Parousia. But I'm not sure this is what he means. In other places, he pulls Wright up for merging "the imputation of a new position with the impartation of a new nature." (p126) What would have been helpful in this regard is a discussion of the relationship between justification and sanctification, as Piper sees them. As it is, he doesn't mention sanctification at all, i.e. the ongoing work of the Spirit in the believer to conform him to the image of Christ, not just nominally but truly. This is something I would like to hear Piper clarify (it is possible he does this in other books he has written- I will be keeping my eye out for such treatments). Regarding imputation, I'm not convinced there is as much difference between Piper and Wright as at first appears. Both see righteousness as a status that is given by God, rather than an ontological reality, but whereas Piper sees this as the morally upstanding and Torah-obeying life of Christ being regarded as ours, Wright sees that righteousness as being a covenantal vindication, a declaration that one is indeed a member of the Covenant People of God and an indication that one will be among the elect on the last day. Wright's main beef (and consequently Piper's beef with his beef) lies in whether this righteousness is God's own counted as ours or whether it is not His own but a status, as it were, freshly created, counted as ours.
The real dispute here, I think, is how to regard salvation. Wright comes at it from a very participationist view. We are justified by being in Christ. Since we are in Christ, what is His is also ours. Since we are in Christ, the Spirit of Christ is in us and works to perfect that participation by making us like Him. This naturally leads to synergism, where the good works we do are done both by us and by Him, not as a supplement (I do what I can and He does the rest) but by a paradoxical dual totality (everything I do I do with all the effort and energy I can muster, but in the end everything I have done has been done by Him and I can regard none of it as my own). Piper decries synergism, smelling about it a gospel of works and Pelagianism, but on more than one occasion I got the impression that he didn't quite get the paradox. So when Wright says that we will be judged on the basis of the totality of our life (which, personally, I don't think is sufficiently nuanced as it doesn't leave room for things like deathbed conversions), Piper springs into action to defend the doctrine of grace alone, seemingly under the impression that Wright has denied it. Witness, for example, this passage: "It is unclear whether Wright is merging our imputed position in Christ as vindicated before God with an imparted newness of nature that lives by faith. I don't think Wright would even like this distinction, since both are totally gracious gifts of God."[italics mine] (p127). Piper is probably right that Wright would dislike the distinction he makes, but I think the reason he gives is telling. He seems to think Wright would dislike the distinction because it would mean that God's grace does everything and leaves nothing for me to do; in other words, because the distinction assumes sola gratia. I believe this is both a misunderstanding of Wright's theology and also a symptom of a certain tonedeafness on Piper's part. Actually, it reminds me of nothing so much as the difficulty of explaining the hypostatic union to a Jehovah's Witness: "Look, you can see from these verses that Jesus was a man." "Yes, I agree with that." "So you see he cannot be God as you claim." "Well, no, he is God." "But as you can see the Bible shows that he is a man like any other." "Yes, he is a man like any other but he is also God." "Do you believe that Jesus was a man?" "Yes, I do." "So therefore he can't be God." "No, he can be God. He is God and man at the same time. He is both." "But the Bible says..." and so on and on.
This seems to be a similar blindness to paradox. "Do you believe that you are justified by works?" "Yes. Have you read Romans 2?" "So you deny the gospel of grace?" "No, there is nothing I can do to be saved. God's grace through Christ alone can save." "Then you admit that your life will be irrelevant at the judgement?" "No, I will be judged on the basis of the life I've lived in the Spirit." "So you believe you need to do something to be saved?" "No, it is the Spirit who works in me." "Do you believe what the Bible teaches, that God does everything and you contribute nothing to your salvation?" "Well, I do believe that God does everything but I also believe that I do do something towards my salvation." "But if you do something, then that something is something God doesn't do." "No, God does it and I do it." "That doesn't make any sense. Do you do it or does God do it?" "We both do it." "So you believe you contribute something to your salvation?" "Yes, the life I live in the Spirit." "So you think you need to add something to the grace of God!" and so on. Frustrating.
The need for a clarification on what Piper believes about sanctification becomes more acute later in the book. He says things like, "Whether this right standing with God consists in the imputation of righteousness from beginning to end or consists partly in the impartation of righteousness is a crucial and necessary question." (p182) To which I reply, why partly? Can it not be a total imputation AND a total impartation? Or do we remain partially sinners to the end? Elsewhere, Piper quotes Charles Hodge sympathetically: "Christ bearing our sins did not make Him morally a sinner...nor does Christ's righteousness become subjectively ours, it is not the moral quality of our souls..." pp179-180) A statement like that cries out for a statement about sanctification and the action of the Holy Spirit to balance it. But nothing is said about either. Further on, Piper quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in an effort to demonstrate how close Wright's ideas are to the Church's and therefore why he should be opposed: "God's final verdict of justification is based on the Christian's inherent righteousness , acquired by grace..." Does this mean that Piper believes that the Christian is never intrinsically righteous, but only ever nominally?! Hence the need for clarification.
Getting back to imputed righteousness, one question I would like to see Piper (or for that matter, any Calvinist) answer is, if we are in Christ (and Piper accepts that idea, even if he is uncomfortable with some of the implications Wright, or for that matter the Catholic Church, draws from it), then how can His righteousness be 'alien'?
3) Connected with these points is what is, I think, a common Protestant mistake, which is to get faith and grace confused. I can't count the number of sermons I've heard where the preacher has spoken of sola fide where actually what he meant was sola gratia. So when Wright denies sola fide (at least in the narrow sense that Piper wants him to adhere to), invariably Piper ends by accusing him of denying sola gratia. An example: "What then, in Wright's system, does this description of works as 'signs' point to? Clearly, it points to the fact that union with Christ by faith secures a vindication for us that we have only because of union with Christ, not because of our merit or 'self-help moralism'. But what is less clear is whether it points also to a Spirit-wrought transformation 'in Christ' that also functions coordinately with the death and resurrection of Christ as the ground or basis of our final vindication." (p127) Note what has happened here. Wright has been claiming that Spirit-wrought transformation works coordinately with faith, both of which have as their basis the grace won by Christ through the Paschal Mystery. Piper subtly replaces faith with the Paschal Mystery, making it look like Wright is trying to add to the work of Christ. I don't put this down to any disingenuousness on Piper's part. I think Protestants in general have a habit of getting grace and faith mixed up, treating them as though they were the same thing when in fact they are not.
Now, more positive points.
4) Wright goes to great lengths to demonstrate that first-century Judaism was not Pelagian, was not about earning salvation through works of the law, but was rather built on a doctrine of grace based on God's election of them as a chosen people. Piper, in a very well-argued chapter, demonstrates that, whether or not they believed they could earn their salvation, they could still be guilty of what he calls a 'soft legalism' deriving from their consciousness of the covenant and election, thereby leading to self-righteousness. So, whether, as Wright says, the Torah provided a distinction between them and the Gentiles, a badge of covenant membership or whether, as the Reformers (and Piper?) said, it was a kind of Pelagian instrument designed to merit salvation; in either case, it led to self-righteousness so the different perspectives here are a moot point. In his own book, Wright acknowledges the validity of Piper's argument on this point.
5) Piper criticises Wright's definition of God's "righteousness" in Paul as His faithfulness to the covenant. He says that this is one of the things God's righteousness does, but not what it is in its essence. Wright, in his book, says things which, I'm pretty sure, amount in the realm of ideas to more or less the same thing. So I think this is also a moot point.
That will do for the moment, I think.