A few days ago Trevin Wax posted an interview he conducted with N.T. Wright. There is some great discussion going on over at the Kingdom People blog. Here is a comment that Trevin made in response to some questions and comments that I find helpful:
"First, responding to BJ…
Your question about Wright and Piper’s view on the “grounds for salvation” is actually not what this discussion is about. Keep in mind that Wright and Piper are using the same terms in different ways.
Wright is using the term “justification” in an ecclesiological sense. That is… he is saying that what marks us out as being part of the kingdom of God is our faith - not circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, etc. In other words, justification is concerned with “who is in the covenant.” He seeks to uphold this definition by putting passages like Ephesians 2 in context (after the “by grace you are saved through faith” section follows an extended passage on God bringing together Jew and Gentile). Also key for Wright is Galatians 2. When Paul confronts Peter, what is it over? Ecclesiology. Peter won’t sit with the Gentiles. He is waffling on “the mark” of the covenant, which is now faith in Jesus - not the Jewish Law.
So when Wright says one is justified on the Last Day by works, he is NOT saying that one is saved by works. He is not using “salvation” and “justification” as synonyms. In fact, he caught me doing this in my first interview with him (Nov. ‘07). I asked a question about justification by works, switched over to talking about salvation, and he said I was equating them… He was right. I was. But he’s not and he wants to be emphatic about that. Salvation is by grace alone.
So part of this discussion is about how to frame the doctrine of justification. Is it merely an ecclesiological doctrine (that is, it speaks to who is part of God’s people) or is it also a soteriological doctrine (that is, it solves the problem of how one gets to be part of God’s people)? Piper and many in the Reformed tradition see it as the latter. Wright and others in the Reformed tradition (including Baxter and a few others it can be argued - Michael Bird is the expert on this) see it as the former.
In answer to Tim, who wants me to peek my head up and give a verdict… I enjoy the works of Piper and Wright and have benefited greatly from both. I feel indebted to Wright for his work on the historical Jesus, which helped me to see how Jesus actually fit his historical context. I am indebted to Piper for his God-centered theology that focuses on the glory of Christ.
To see where I line up, take a look at my extensive commentary on “The Future of Justification” and also a series I did about a year ago called “New Perspective Positives,” where I demonstrate a few places that the New Perspective provides a healthy corrective to evangelical theology. I believe there are some key points made by the NP that can be incorporated into a conservative theological framework that leaves intact the traditional categories of historic Protestant theology.
Regarding the debate over justification… Think of Wright’s theology as a movie camera that focuses in on the background instead of the foreground. (You’ve seen movies or TV shows where the background is brought into focus and the foreground is fuzzy.) I think Wright is correct to see the ecclesiological ramifications of justification that are often absent from Reformed expositions. The ecclesiological question is bigger than we’ve made it out to be in the past. So in that sense, I think it is a help to look at the ecclesiological background.
But when we take Wright’s approach, the foreground gets fuzzy. The foreground is the soteriological dimension of justification that (agreeing with Piper) I believe is part of Paul’s view. In other words, Wright is helpful in focusing our attention on the ecclesiological dimension of justification and unhelpful in that he too often reduces it to that dimension alone.
But let me again say… I enjoy the works of both these men. And though I would be more aligned with Piper on the issue of justification, I would actually be more aligned with Wright & Goldsworthy (and others) on Paul’s definition of “the gospel.” So… I’m one of these guys who is grateful for the opportunity to read and learn from both these men.
Wright is not as dangerous as Piper makes him out to be; Piper is not as bad as Wright makes him out to be. Once you keep that in mind, you can read both these guys and appreciate their collective strengths and weaknesses.
That’s my two cents."