Heteroglossia: A Wright & Piper Example

Derek Ouellette —  February 14, 2011

I stumbled upon a book hidden on the bottom shelf in a bookstore titled, Evil and the Justice of God. At the time I was studying Open Theism which led me to a study of theodicy when I noticed it and began to read. I was captivated not just by the author’s arguments, but also by his writing style which seemed well crafted. I was further taken in when I discovered that the author held to the view of atonement known as Christus Victor,[i] a few I had recently been introduced to after reading Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulen.

I decided to look up what other books were written by this author and came across one titled Climax of the Covenant. I had recently embraced Covenant Theology[ii] – leaving my childhood Dispensationalism behind – because Covenant Theology seemed to remove much of the arbitrariness I could not reconcile in my previous views. After reading Climax of the Covenant the world of the Scriptures, the purpose of the Cross, God’s plan of salvation and the whole scope of redemption history came alive for me like never before. Now I was hooked. His name – as if you don’t already know – is N.T. Wright.

I pursued other writings by Wright and bought one titled What Saint Paul Really Said? This book revolutionized my thinking even further than the others. It opened up the whole world in which Paul lived, explaining meanings of terms I take for granted like “Gospel” and “Lord” and – no matter how controversial – “Justification” and “Righteousness”. I soon absorbed everything I could get my hands on by Wright. Time passed and I grew deeper into Wright’s thinking.

My backdrop to the story of me and Wright is rather interesting. I am what you might call a self-studied “armchair theologian”. I was raised Pentecostal where I understood most rich theological terms at only a surface level.[iii] I was Protestant in that I wasn’t “Catholic” but I was far from what I now understand to be “Reformed” or “Lutheran” thinking. I never understood why, when I got into scuffles with Catholics, they would try and convince me that faith is required to be born again (“regenerated” as they put it). It was because Reformers say that regeneration comes before faith and makes faith possible. I did not know that at the time and the Catholics I debated would lump all Protestants into the sum of Reformed thinking, making no distinction.

Pentecostal’s inherited the assumption from John Wesley’s theology which follows the biblical teaching that faith is required for saving grace to take effect. When that grace comes, the person is made new or “born again” (regenerated). These were the assumptions I inherited and which made sense of the clearest passages of scripture.

Just before I got into Wright’s work I had explored Open Theism as I said. I did this by reading several books for[iv] and against[v] the Open View of God. The only authors who wrote against them were Calvinists’ (a term which many use as synonymous with “Reformed”). So I read about a dozen books by Calvinists at this time and determined when all was said and done that I was revolted by their theology.

One of the books written was called Beyond the Bounds. It was a compilation work of Reformed scholars lead by Pastor John Piper who marshaled the troops in hopes of convincing the Evangelical world that Open Theism was not an Evangelical option. I did not appreciate either Piper’s tone or his theology. On the surface he clearly is most concerned with defending or upholding the glory of God. All of his theology seems to revolve around this nucleus. But beneath the surface his portrayal is of a God so distorted in image that he can hardly be recognized as the God of the historic Christian faith. The God which Piper portrayed was more like a distant deist in the sense of being cold, calculated and “simple”, without emotions, without love, without grief and so on; a God of utter arbitrariness whose sole purpose of existence is to glorify Himself first by saving some, next by damning most. In short, this portrayal of God seemed completely contrary to God revealed in the scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ.

When I became a Christian, I entered into a relationship with a loving God who sacrificed himself in order to save me from my sins. The love of God is not a vague mushy-gushy lovey-dovey emotion, it was an action in which God saw the state of the world and committed to do whatever was necessary to remedy it. If contrary to this you were to tell me that God is as Piper portrays him; that is not the faith I signed up for. I signed up for a faith in a God I can trust, a faithful God. Not an arbitrary deist who gives no care or thought for his creation except in so far as he can get glory out of damning most and “saving” some.

So you can see that by the time I came to Wright’s writings I was already quite turned off by John Piper. First he seemed to think it his mission to wear the Chief of Police badge not just of Reformed Tradition, but also of the wider Evangelical world which – if Piper had his way – would be reduced to the Reformed Tradition; second because of the theology of God which he promotes.

The doctrine of Justification at this point was nowhere in sight for me. I was never explained it much – in my Pentecostal upbringing – except on a surface level whereby we are justified because of our faith in Jesus Christ. Terms such as “imputation” “impartation” and “righteousness of God” had no rich meaning for me. So you might say that when I came to Wright, my mind in this area was a blank slate.

One day a new book had come across my desk with Wright’s name on the front cover, but it was not written by Wright. John Piper was at it again. He threw on his police badge and went to work correcting Wright on his doctrine of Justification. In fact, that was the title: The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright by John Piper. It turns out Wright’s book, What Saint Paul Really Said? had stirred up quite the controversy by denying the doctrine of “Imputation”, suggesting that the phrase “Righteousness of God” meant “God’s Covenant Faithfulness” and by daring to suggest that the context in which a word was employed is key to understanding what the word meant at that time.

I remember reading Piper’s book with intrigue. Simply put, John Piper had called Wright to explain himself more clearly. I admit that there were some things which Wright would say which I had not fully grasped. Piper saw himself as one pastor pleading with another that he (Wright) would repent from his misguided teaching on Justification and would return to the “Reformed fold”.

I remember reading Piper’s book and – aside from bringing to light much of what I perceived (with Piper) as ambiguity within Wrights writings – I was not much persuaded by Piper’s overall arguments in defense of Imputation and the traditional view of the “Righteousness of God”. At one point in Piper’s book I remember getting down right disillusioned with his method of defense. My jaw dropped when I read in a footnote how Piper explained that it is not the context of a word that matters or even the words definition at that time. What matter’s – Piper counseled his readers – was the word itself.[vi]

This struck at the heart of Wright’s argument about the “Righteousness of God” which he believed to be another way of saying, “God’s Faithfulness of His Covenant”. For Wright, the history, background and context of the phrase “Righteousness of God” in Jewish theology was a reference to God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham. For Piper, who cares what the phrase “Righteousness of God” meant in its historical context and theological background, all that really matters is the phrase itself.

When Wright got around to writing a response simply titled Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, I was humored when I discovered that Wright picked up on this very footnote:

Piper seems to me to lean far too heavily in a dangerous direction in a key footnote…”[vii]

So who is right? Are words timeless so that their meaning and definition are static, universal and unchanging so that what they mean today is what they must have always meant back then (a la Piper’s position in his footnote)? Or do words carry different meanings based on their context and intention of the author? And now I have finally come to the point of this post.

Recently I read Wrestling the Word by Carolyn Sharp in which I discovered a principle or word usage very helpful when considering our current discussion. There is a principle called “heteroglossia” which, as a straight definition you’ll probably hate, is this non-word: “multilanguagedness”. In quoting a language scholar who popularized this principle, Mikhail Bakhtin, she writes:

HETEROGLOSSIA: The base condition governing the operation of meaning in any utterance. It is that which [ensures] the primacy of context over text. At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions – social, historical, meteorological, physiological – that will [ensure] that a word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot.[viii]

Context is essential for understanding and interpreting text. John Piper would have us interpret a text without its context which would result – and in his case, has resulted – in missing the message of the Biblical author.

Heteroglossia, or Heteroglot – mark that one in your tool belt of biblical interpretation.

[i] Christus Victor is the oldest view of the atonement held by the Church Fathers and by the Orthodox Church today. Rather than seeing “Christ the victim” it sees “Christ the victor” since in his death and resurrection Christ defeated the Devil, Sin and Death.

[ii] The books I read down this road included Christ of the Covenants and Israel of God both by O Palmer Robertson as well as other indirect books such as End Times Delusions. It also became apparent as I went deeper into academic readings, that most scholars – those being pumped out of Dallas Theological Seminary notwithstanding – were all Covenant Theologians.

[iii] Pentecostalism is only now beginning to come to age so that they can sit at the table of the Christian academic community. My Pentecostalism was rooted in Fundamentalism. If you are interested in a credible engagement with recent developments in Pentecostalism, I recommend the new series titled Pentecostal Manifestos which so far include Justified in the Spirit (Frank Macchia), Thinking in Tongues (James K.A. Smith) and Beyond Pentecostalism (Wolfgang Vondey).

[iv] Some examples for Open Theism include: Openness of God and Most Moved Mover by Clark Pinnock; God Who Risks by John Sanders and God of the Possible by Greg Boyd.

[v] Some examples against Open Theism include: Their God Is Too Small by Bruce Ware; No Other God by John Frame; Beyond the Bounds Ed. By John Piper.

[vi] Piper, John; Future of Justification, p.36, n.5; Piper quotes Wright: “We can never, in other words, begin with the author’s use of a word; we must begin with the wider world he lived in”. Piper responds: “The author’s use of the word is the most crucial evidence concerning its meaning”.

[vii] Wright, N.T., Justification, p.48

[viii] Sharp, Carolyn J; Wrestling the Word, p.68; bold mine.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Wayne Pelly

    Interesting concept. To help us understand it better, could you do a post sometime where you apply this principle to “authentein” in 1 Timothy 2:12?

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek

      LOL Wayne, are you trying to get me in trouble?


    I came from a non-denominational, fundamentalist, charismatic, dispensational background. I too beleived as Piper does regarding salvation and righteouness. And several years ago I was introduced to N.T. Wright’s work by my nephew (Pastor Larry garcia of Academia Church) and it has completely changed the way that I read and undestand “scripture”. The bible needs to be read as a narrative wherein God creates everything including His Eikon (image bearing human) created to reflect His image. Man falls and God then through Abraham promises to bless all the families of the earth. It is through Abraham’s seed (singular) that God will not only restore His people to himself but all of mankind through the covenant faithfullness of Jesus. And all who have faith in Christ are declared “righteous” and are included in God’s new family to once again be a community of Eikons (image brearers) bringing hope to the world.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    “Context is essential for understanding and interpreting text. John Piper would have us interpret a text without its context which would result – and in his case, has resulted – in missing the message of the Biblical author.”

    Yup. Darn right. And what do we call this context? We call it…THE TRADITION!

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Well context is more then just tradition and certainly context is not later tradition. In any case, to ease your angst, no one here discards tradition as a useful tool… :)

    • http://www.rethinkingfaith.com Dave Leigh

      If anything, I think the Reformed are quite attached to tradition (their own) and this can cause them to lose sight of the proper context. When words and sentences are removed from their original contexts, and placed into other contexts (like tradition), they are stripped of their true identity and often become pressed into forced labor that serves ideas their authors (human and divine) never intended, if even imagined.

      Tradition that presumes to judge Scripture, rather than be judged by and held accountable to Scripture, becomes an authority unto itself with no anchor to prevent its drift.

      I say this in reply to MrGregACCA.

      To Derek I say, bravo! Great blog! As always I’ve enjoyed your insights!

  • http://www.drewchapados.net Drew Chapados

    good post,
    but you already know where I stand on Wright–as I say until you can prove me wrong, wright is right!

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Re: later Tradition. What is earlier, what is later? For example, the “Apostolic Tradition” written by St. Hippolytus around 200 CE, is a compilation of older material; it’s explicit purpose is to preserve what has come before. And, while the latest NT document probably dates, at the latest, to 125 CE (II Peter), consensus regarding the New Testament canon is not complete and universal until several centuries later; therefore, the rest of the Tradition develops in sync with the establishment of the NT canon and indeed, the former contributes to the latter. “I am with you always,” says the Lord Jesus, “even until the end of the age.” And Jesus also gives the Church the gift of the Holy Spirit to “lead it into all truth.”

    Anyway, I AM glad to read that you acknowledge the Tradition is “a useful tool.” However, my brother, I will take that a lot more seriously when I see you guys a)acquiring bishops in apostolic succession along with validly ordained presbyters and deacons; b)celebrating the Eucharist according to an historic liturgy (or, even, a contemporary iteration which follows the historic shape and expresses the concepts found in the historic liturgies) at least every Lord’s Day and recognizing that, in receiving the consecrated bread and wine, y’all are “eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man”; c)baptizing, chrismating/confirming and communing the infants and small children of believers; practicing the Mystery/Sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession; and d)recognizing the role of the Communion of Saints, especially that of the Theotokos, in the life of the Church and, therefore, in the life of all Christians. “Evangelical”, not even Pentecostal, Holiness, or Arminian Evangelical, “is not enough”.

    • brad dickey

      I defend tradition vs sola scriptura, (the newer intrepretation of the term) all the time. I defend it with the Bible. And that really makes the kjv only, sola scriptura crowd really angry.

      Apparently I’m more of a threat than lucifer Himself according to them. 😐 Or is it that I am Lucifer Himself…. I get confused, the spittle at the time gets in the way.

      I’m so far from a liturgical brand church that I’m barely even protestant in my thinking. But I’m certainly closer to that side than your side. Not all are knee jerk reactionists.

  • Tom Eggebeen

    Thanks for this piece … I’ve worked my way through nearly all of Wright’s work, and find his focus to be refreshingly Biblical, taking us back to the roots of Paul’s faith in a genuinely sovereign God who is also profoundly determined to redeem the whole of God’s creation. Piper continues the fundamentalist effort to center the gospel in human decision, thus fracturing the world into “those who accept and believe” and those who don’t, fostering the kind of hubris found so readily in some circles – “I’m saved,” and you’re not.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA
    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Greg, it would be nice if I had the time to go around with you in this unending discussion. But it seems clear to me that we are talking past each other. I don’t want to get stuck on one issue.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Scratch that… when I get time, I’ll return to this and dialogue with your post.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Brad Dickey writes above:

    “I defend tradition vs sola scriptura, (the newer intrepretation of the term) all the time. I defend it with the Bible. And that really makes the kjv only, sola scriptura crowd really angry…I’m so far from a liturgical brand church that I’m barely even protestant in my thinking. But I’m certainly closer to that side than your side. Not all are knee jerk reactionists.”

    Brad, I am really, really happy to read this, and I completely empathize with the reaction you get from the circles you mention. Been there, done that. There are people with whom it is impossible to have a coherent conversation (none of them are on this blog, thankfully).

    However, I am confused (seriously): how can one defend the historic Orthodox-Catholic Christian Tradition and not, at the same time, embrace the Liturgy which is an integral part of that Tradition?

    BTW, as I’m sure you have discovered, they don’t like it very much either when you remind them that the KJV originally contained the Deutero-canonical books! 😉

  • Aaron

    Another great post Derek. I was at Bethel College in Minnesota when Piper went on his crusade to get Greg Boyd ousted from Bethel as well as the Baptist General conference denomination. Roger Olson has some interesting things to say about how that all went down on his blog. Anyway like you, I am very turned off by the tone.

  • Bill Hooper

    It is refreshing to read your blog. I was beginning to think that only fundamentalists were members of the Christian Ministry & Church Leadership group.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Thanks for coming by Bill. I hope you come back from time to time (and that I don’t let you down).

  • http://www.dodifferent.org.uk David Bunce

    Yeh. Personally, for me, Wright’s argument comes closest to making the best sense of the whole of the Scriptural narrative – the calling of Abraham out of grace (and God providing the sacrifice), the Exodus as an act of grace – and the dying of the Son of God in peace on our behalf and in our place. Whole swathes of Biblical material then start to make much more sense if things hang on God’s righteousness not on our decision – not least the cosmic scope of parts of the NT.

    If you liked Wright on justification, check out Douglas Campbell’s “The Delivery of God” – even trippier than Wright, this is a fantastic commentary on Romans that takes on much of the reading of the last few centuries and has some genuinely unique (yet, I think, at the same time Biblical) things to say.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Thanks David, I’ll look into that.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Dave Leigh writes above:

    “If anything, I think the Reformed are quite attached to tradition (their own) and this can cause them to lose sight of the proper context. …never intended, if even imagined.”

    Yup. Here we have to distinguish between the “Apostolic Tradition” and the “traditions of men.” With the Reformed, a new “tradition” starts with Augustine, whose reading of Scripture is taken out of its original and natural context, the millieu of the Fathers who came before him. Calvin, by presuming to privilege certain passages over others, only compounds the problem. Here is the difference: the whole of Scripture is an integral part of the nexus of the Apostolic Tradition, whereas “traditions of men” are generally derived in a one-sided way from selected passages of the Bible which are used as hermeneutical keys to understand the whole.

    In reality, the necessary keys are found outside of Scripture: they are found in real life, in history, in the events that Scripture describes. Ultimately, the one key is Jesus Christ, but this key is mediated by the other portions of the Apostolic Tradition, especially the Rule of faith, that being the Creed and the rule of prayer, the historic Eucharistic liturgies (virtually all of which remain in use today), the Councils and, secondarily but indispensably, the writings of the Fathers.

    “Tradition that presumes to judge Scripture, rather than be judged by and held accountable to Scripture, becomes an authority unto itself with no anchor to prevent its drift.”

    See my blog post, linked above. On the contrary, the rest of the Tradition (the Bible is, in our view, part and parcel of the Apostolic Tradition. It is the cornerstone, yes, but it remains an integral part of the Tradition, not to be sundered from it) insures that the whole Bible, not just certain controlling passages, are brought to bear. Again, to quote now Father Peter Gillquist, formerly an Evangelical pastor and staffer for Campus Crusade: “All of Orthodoxy is found in the Bible, but much of it is in passages that we did not underline when we were Evangelicals.”

    Thus, we can say that Bible is an anchor for the rest of the Tradition, while the latter protects the integrity of the Bible as a whole.

  • http://wix.com/grantceo/bibleway Raymond Grant

    Tradition! Fiddler on the Roof. Great stage play – nice movie. Remnants of that debate echo here. Tradition has value… sometimes. Truth has value all the time. Hands down – truth has more value than tradition. Jesus never flagged tradition as the getaway car to freedom, but he did flag the truth as such. Ye shall know the truth and the truth (absolute truth you know) shall set you free. Tradition is not the key to liberty. It is a sacred cow fit for sacrifice at appropriate times and under the right circumstances. On its best day, it is just too slow when trying to escape the hooks of bondage.

    Jesus very clearly denounced traditions which enslaved his countrymen and burdened them to the point of religious and spiritual exhaustion. He hated ritualistic praying, and condemned ritualists in general, calling them white-washed sepulchres, full of dead men’s bones. Let us cease from fiddling on the roof. May we be like Pilate and at least ask the question – “What is truth?” Once we know the truth, then we can form traditions based on truth and not merely on habit. (My reference to “we” is general and not specific to the writers here).

    Sometimes I wonder what Jesus would do if he were here in our blogosphere. What would he say to all these arguments? Let’s see… they are of Paul, and those guys over there, they are of Cephas and oh, yeah… that bunch is siding with Apollos. Golly! Those guys are with me! Historically folks, Peter, Paul, Apollos and Christ were all in agreement and thus all on the same side. We tend to think today that because we all wear a Jesus T-shirt, that we are all on the same side. Problem is, we do not meet the criteria of agreement. How can two walk together except they be agreed?

    To the point: please show me anywhere in Scripture that the Catholic church was Christ’s invention, plan or is a part of his continuum? I said in Scripture. Blood line does not determine apostolic succession, and neither does a vote – but divine appointment does. The signs of an apostle must also be seen – miracles, signs and wonders, healings and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.

    Please show me in Scripture where salvation came to any man who merely gave mental assent-like faith and was saved by that? Further, show in Scripture where any apostle in the book of Acts instructed anyone just to believe without responding by obeying the creed (repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of the Lord Jesus and you shall receive the gift…