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).
[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”.