Clash of the Titans: NT Wright v J Piper

S Walton

Personal note

First, let me begin with a confession: I began my reading of these two books biased against NT Wright and in favour of John Piper. It would be foolish and dishonest of me to pretend that I approached them from a neutral perspective. Indeed, such detachment would be both impossible and wrong, given what is at stake. Reading Wright and Piper’s exchange has not changed my basic bias, as will be clear. But I have tried to give both my brothers in Christ a fair hearing, and I hope that I have approached neither sinner uncritically.

Second, let me emulate Wright and begin with a parable. Like many people, I was swept away by the scale and grandeur of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Peter Jackson had followed JRR Tolkien’s basic storyline, and his visualisation of Middle Earth was outstanding. But as I began to think about the details, not least the way secondary characters were portrayed, it became clear that Jackson did not understand the books, and that he was in fact telling a different story from Tolkien’s.[1] Then I turned to The History of Middle Earth, Christopher Tolkien’s massive, twelve-volume account of the development of his father’s work, including, it seems, every scrap of paper Tolkien ever scribbled on. The overall storyline seemed to vanish between a mass of detailed notes on Elven grammar, the exact location of Tol Eressea, and the analatusity of Balrogs. But eventually, from Christopher Tolkien’s detailed exegesis, Tolkien’s vision emerged with greater depth and beauty, and his grand narrative became clearer.

I first encountered Wright at Oxford in the Hilary term of 1993, when I went to a lecture course on “The Theology of the Apostle Paul” by the then chaplain of Worcester College. I was swept away: Wright is simply the best lecturer I have ever heard. His love of the scriptures was crystal clear, so at times, his lectures threatened to spill over into preaching: and I mean that as a compliment. I was later privileged to here his expositions of Isaiah for the OICCU, and to hear him speak at University missions. But impressed as I was by the freshness and grandeur of his conception of Paul, I started to feel uneasy. During lectures, I would take copious notes, at very high speed, convinced by what he was saying. Then I would go home and read them over, and look up the Bible references. Time and time again, I would ask myself “where is he getting this from?”: the references did not seem to back up what he had said[2]. There seemed to be so much reading between the lines going on, that the lines themselves had vanished. This impression was later confirmed, when I wrote my BA dissertation at Oak Hill, on the implications of Romans 4 for Wright’s ideas on justification[3]. I wrote this because I had become concerned about what would happen when Wright’s ideas filtered down to pulpits and pews, after reading New Tasks for a Renewed Church[4].

I first encountered John Piper through his books, later hearing him preach both in the flesh and on the internet. Piper’s formulations are often startling, and I had some hesitation about them at first. His books are passionate but also deal in very detailed exegesis: he admits that he is concerned for “participles and prepositions”, and his sermons have a “dog-at-a-bone” quality in the way he goes at a text. He seems much less concerned with the grand narrative of scripture. Yet personally, I now find Piper’s works more enriching: they seem to get closer to the heart of scripture.


John Piper is the “pastor for preaching and vision” at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where he has served since 1980. Before that, he taught Biblical studies at Bethel College, St Paul, Minnesota. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary, and has a D.Theol. in Biblical Studies from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. Piper is a prominent leader among the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement. He is perhaps best known for his book Desiring God, where he expounds what he calls “Christian Hedonism”: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him”. He was scheduled to debate with NT Wright at the 2010 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. However, he recently announced that he would be taking an 8 month leave of absence from his church, and his place will be taken by Thomas Schreiner (a prominent New Testament Scholar, and former member of Bethlehem Baptist). Before The Future of Justification Piper published Counted Righteous in Christ (Leicester: IVP, 2002) as a response to Robert Gundry’s rejection of imputation. Available on the internet is a series of sermons on Romans which deals with many of the key passages (

NT or “Tom” Wright is the Bishop of Durham. He has just announced his retirement from this post in August 2010 to become Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. He studied theology at Wycliffe Hall, and has a D.Phil in New Testament from Oxford. He has been a University chaplain at both Oxford and Cambridge, taught New Testament at McGill University, Ontario, and at Oxford, and has been Dean of Lichfield Cathedral and Canon theologian of Westminster Abbey. He has been a significant figure during the recent disputes in the Anglican Communion, and is recognised as one of the architects of the Windsor process. He is also one of the founders of Fulcrum. Wright is a prolific and engaging author at both an academic and a popular level. He has garnered much praise from conservative evangelicals for his defence of Christ’s resurrection. Wright is best known as one of the proponents of the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP- he seems to have coined the phrase, in a 1978 lecture), although as he points out, this is a very diverse movement, with a great deal of internal disagreement.

Observant readers will have noticed something in these biographies. John Piper has been both a professional New Testament scholar and a pastor. Judging by Crockfords, NT Wright’s entire career has been in academic or cathedral posts; he has never been either an incumbent or a curate. This is not a criticism: some are called to academic ministry, and judging by Wright’s early retirement from Durham, he may recognise this in himself. Wright says that he writes as a “pastor”, and his commitment to pastoral theology, to writing for the people of God, not just academia, could not be clearer. But unlike JP, he lacks direct pastoral experience. I suspect that this gives the two men a difference in perspective that is reflected in their books.

Both Piper and Wright treat the other with courtesy and respect, but Piper’s book in particular is a model of how one Christian should publicly disagree with another. Piper sent a first draft to Wright, and took Wright’s response into account in the final version. Piper is consistently courteous and charitable towards Wright, and always assumes the best about Wright’s motives, (a marked contrast to Wright’s own polemics). Indeed, at some points Piper defends Wright from unfair criticism. He does not question Wright’s salvation, (contrary to a misleading review by the Bishop of Lincoln in the Church Times), but is concerned as a pastor about the effects of Wright’s views, not least the sort of preaching that they will result in. His approach is to ask Wright for clarification of what he has said, and to note Wright’s numerous ambiguities. Wright on the other hand blames “other duties” and publishers deadlines (he finished the book during the 2008 Lambeth Conference) for not sending a draft to Piper.

Wright’s opening parable. Knows it is patronising. People haven’t listened, has to explain again- angry, irritated book. Method: exegesis has to be against grand narrative, God’s plan to save world against Israel. Interpretation of individual passages makes sense when seen in this big context.

One revealing curiosity is the two books’ bibliographies. Piper does not have a full bibliography, but lists 8 books, and 9 essays, interviews and lectures, by Wright. Wright does have a full bibliography in which he lists 18 books and 26 major articles by himself, and one book by Piper. He does not even list Piper’s previous book on imputation, or his sermons on Romans, which Piper himself references (although Wright does note that he reviewed Piper’s study of Romans 9, when it was published in 1993). In an unintentionally ironic passage Wright criticises the NIV regarding its translation of dikaiosunh qeou and the omission of “or” at the beginning of Romans 3:29: “I do not know what version of scripture they use at Dr Piper’s church. But I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about… [those reading the NIV] may well come to forget that they are reading a visibly and demonstrably flawed translation and imagine that this is what Paul really said”. Five minutes research on the internet would have shown Wright that Piper is a strong critic of the NIV, and that Bethlehem Baptist uses the ESV, which translates Romans exactly as Wright wishes.

The impression that Wright has not bothered reading Piper very widely is strengthened when he criticizes Piper and others who hold that the Gospel is about the salvation of individuals for being man-centred and not God-centred. P8- they make us the centre of universe, rather than God and his purposes, p7: “Christian truth s all about me and my salvation. Anyone who has read Desiring God or The Pleasures of God will know that this is an absolutely extraordinary accusation to make against Piper.

One weakness of Piper’s two books on justification is that both are polemical in nature: they are responses to another scholar, not a straightforward exposition of the doctrine of justification. I would love to see Piper write such a book, with a minimum of polemic in it. Unfortunately, neither Piper or Wright refers to Brian Vickers Jesus blood and righteousness (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006; Piper does mention that he showed a draft of his book to Vickers). This book expounds imputation from the key NT passages, and I think is a better defence of it than either of Piper’s. Vickers mentions that he is working on a longer book on justification, which will situate it within the context of covenant theology. Another important work is Justification by John Fesko (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 2008), although it was published too late for either Piper or Wright to take account of it.

A similar criticism can be made of Wright: his book is a response to Piper, not a full exposition of his views. This he promises will come in the next major volume of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series. But in the mean time, his responses to critics are frustratingly brief. For instance, he dismisses the two volumes of Justification and Variegated Nomism without actually responding to its arguments. He makes no response at all to Moises Silva’s vital article on the translations of pistij cristou and erga tou nomou. Until Wright has come up with a convincing response to Silva et al, his entire work on Paul must be seen as provisional

Justification and the Gospel- defintions

John Piper:


From the Desiring God statement of faith:

“9.1 We believe that in a free act of righteous grace God justifies the ungodly by faith alone apart from works,157 pardoning their sins,158 and reckoning them as righteous and acceptable in His presence.159 Faith is thus the sole instrument160 by which we, as sinners, are united to Christ, whose perfect righteousness and satisfaction for sins is alone the ground of our acceptance with God.161 This acceptance happens fully and permanently at the first instant of justification.162 Thus the righteousness by which we come into right standing with God is not anything worked in us by God, neither imparted to us at baptism nor over time, but rather is accomplished for us, outside ourselves, and is imputed to us.

9.2 We believe, nevertheless, that the faith, which alone receives the gift of justification, does not remain alone in the person so justified, but produces, by the Holy Spirit,163 the fruit of love164 and leads necessarily to sanctification.165 This necessary relation between justifying faith and the fruit of good works gives rise to some Biblical expressions which seem to make works the ground or means of justification,166 but in fact simply express the crucial truth that faith that does not yield the fruit of good works is dead, being no true faith.167 Accessed 15/6/2010


From “The Gospel in six minutes”:

“What’s the gospel? I’ll put it in a sentence.

The Gospel is the news that Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over all his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy.

That’s the gospel”. . Accessed 15/6/2010

NT Wright


Those who hear the gospel and respond in faith are then declared by God to be his people … They are given the status dikaios, “righteous”, “within the covenant”

Paul in fresh perspective p122

“Justification in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was in fact a member of his people”.

What St Paul really said p119


“[The gospel] is not then a system of how people get saved.”

“The “Gospel” itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of king Jesus”

What St Paul really said p45

“The Gospel” itself refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one and only King of the world”.

Paul in different perspectives: Lecture 1


  1. 1. Are we sinners in the hands of an angry God?

In his great work The Doctrine of Justification through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ; explained, confirmed and vindicated John Owen lists eight things that must be considered before we can deal properly with the doctrine. The second and third are “a due consideration of God, the Judge of all necessary unto the right stating and apprehension of the doctrine of justification” and “A due sense of our apostasy from God, the deprivation of our nature thereby, with the power and guilt of sin, the holiness of the law, necessary unto a right understanding of the doctrine of justification”[5]. It is in this realm of pre-understanding that I think the real difference between Wright and Piper may lie. Piper has an overwhelming sense that we are sinners who stand before a holy God, and in danger of hell, and as a pastor he sees his task as preventing people from going there. I can detect no such sense in Wright’s writings that we stand coram deo. I would be very surprised if he denied it, and I think that if pushed on the subject, he would give answers that Piper and most classical evangelicals would find perfectly acceptable. But it is hard to imagine Wright as an enthusiast for Jonathan Edwards, the preacher of Sinners in the hands of an angry God, as Piper is. Wright’s interests and concerns lie elsewhere[6].

Wright would probably say that this reads 16th century preoccupations back into Paul. But see Duffy et al.

  1. 2. What is the Gospel?

This may be the most important question raised; Piper deals with it in chapter 5. For Wright the Gospel is the “narrative proclamation” that Jesus is king, not justification by faith alone, or any “doctrine of how to get saved”. This does not necessarily mean that Wright marginalizes the cross: the reason there is good news is that “through the cross of King Jesus the one true God has dealt decisively with evil”. Piper raises that objection that this does not fit with Paul’s preaching in acts, especially Acts 13:26, 38-48. Piper agrees with Wright that we are not saved by believing in justification by faith alone, but by believing in Christ, but points out that this leave vague what we believe in Christ for. Piper points out that the revelation that Jesus is Lord is not I itself good news for sinners who have rejected him, (certainly not for the persecutor Saul of Tarsus), and suggests that Wright has not taken sufficiently into account what Stephen Westerholm calls human beings’ “massive unremitting sense of answerability to their maker”. What made Jesus’ death and resurrection good news was the message that they could be the grounds for the justification of the ungodly, not their condemnation.

Piper might have quoted Revelation 6:16, where it is anything but good news that Jesus is Lord. Whilst not neglecting it completely, Wright does have a tendency to treat the issue of individual salvation as marginal and passé, and a distraction from more important issues like social action. This partly explains his attraction for the Emerging Church. The problem is that this will not survive a simple reading of the New Testament, where the question of individual salvation comes up time and time again. Stephen Westerholm has remarked on “the exalted spirituality of those interpreters for whom the ultimate triumph of God and the restoration of the corrupted cosmos are matters of far greater moment than the salvation of the (now hardly to be considered) individual sinner”, and suggested that Paul did not share it[7].

Not dealt with by Wright. He hasn’t listened.

  1. 3. What is the place of biblical theology?
  2. 4. What is righteousness?

Reconciliation of two through covenant of works?

  1. 5. What is the basis for acceptance with God?

Wright p189

Wright p180- wedge between status and moral virtue.

Not dealt with by Wright. He hasn’t listened.

My conclusion in dissertation. p180 on cross. p217

  1. 6. Why is it faith alone that justifies?

Wright p181ff. p183- indicator of transformation- of presence of new humanity?


  1. 7. How is God’s declaration of justification heard?
  2. 8. Is the NPP understanding of 1st century Judaism accurate?
  3. 9. What sort of preaching will result from each?
  4. 10. Key passages:

Luke 18:9-11

Acts 13 (Wright does not deal with this)

Romans 2:13-15

Romans 2:25-29

Romans 3:1-8

Romans 3:26-28 (Piper obscure- see Schreiner, Moo)

Romans 4:3-8

Romans 5:18-19

Romans 10:6-9

1 Corinthians 1:30

2 Corinthians 5:11-21

Galatians 3:15-18 (Wright says that Piper ignores)

Philippians 3:9

“In the end, what is at stake is not simply a doctrine, but the strength and purity of the spring of love”. Piper

[1] Tolkien lovers will note how the characters of Elrond, Theoden, Denethor, and Faramir have been altered, and the appalling mess Jackson made of the Battle of Pellenor Fields, completely losing the moment of “eucatastrophe” that is so central to Tolkien’s thought, and makes this one of the most powerful episodes in the all Tolkien’s work. Jackson degraded it into an action comedy. Those who are not Tolkien nerds, and to whom that made no sense at all, please forgive me.

[2] Inter alia, Wright is one of the worse proof texters I have encountered.


[4] Tom Wright New Tasks for a Renewed Church London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992. Strangely, this is not listed in the otherwise copious bibliography to Justification . Many the concerns and criticisms that I expressed in my dissertation are also expressed in Piper’s book, but with much greater insight and depth of argument. One of my central concerns was that NTW’s reconstruction of the gospel gave evangelism a place in mission, but made it one of many possible activities, such as celebrating the eucharist outside arms factories in front of bomb depots and tank training sites (p129).

[5] John Owen Works, Volume 5 Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998, pp iii, 13-23. Being John Owen, this introduction is longer than most peoples’ books. But if readers only have time to read either Piper or Wright, they should read Owen.

[6] This difference in preunderstanding may also explain Wright’s reaction to the authors of A Covenant for the Church of England, which brought out his worst as a polemicist.

[7] Stephen Westerholm Perspectives and Old and New on Paul Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004 p355