Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What sort of grand narrative?

Shyborg's Speedy Summary:
1. Everyone = Having a Grand Narrative (GN) is a good Reformed thing.
2. Wright = Individual salvation has been over-emphasised.
3. Piper = The Bible says salvation is the focus of the GN.
4. Luke = Wright ignores the horrific importance of Original Sin in his GN.

Both Piper and Wright agree on a grand narrative centered on God. As I pointed out in my last post this isn't a new development in Reformed theology. However Wright thinks from Luther onwards the grand-narrative has been too skewed towards an individual's salvation. "It may look, from our point of view, as though 'me and my salvation' are the be-all and end-all of Christianity." (Justification, 7) Wright speculates this view crept into Christianity because the black death made people focus on "going to heaven when they die." (Justification, 38) He also says he doubts the 1st century Jews sat around debating the finner points of how to be justified.

However there are three problems with Wright's take on what the grand narrative is. Firstly the first century Jewish world was a spiritually and intellectually fractured place, we can see that from the gospels. Not only does it seem anachronistic to assume the Medieval focus on death was somehow absent from the 1st century world but Wright doesn't seem to concede that this assumption becomes for him a sort of controlling force on his own grand narrative. Secondly as Piper points out the grand narrative, while being grand and sweeping is both made of many individuals and detailed in it's application to those individuals. "But Wright's way of highlighting the global sweep of the gospel has the effect of marginalizing and perhaps even negating, some aspects of the gospel that are precious, and without which all talk of rescuing the world from chaos are hollow." (The Future of Justification, Piper, 81) Because "the climatic expression of the gospel to both Jews and then Gentiles, offering them forgiveness of sins, a right standing with God and, in that way eternal life." (The Future of Justification, Piper, 85) Thirdly, while Wright is eager to emphasise the beginning of the grand narrative with Abraham, he never mentions Adam. (Well he does, once in passing on page 199!) The grand narrative really begins with God and then Adam and then Abraham. Wright's grand narrative isn't big enough, fixing our state of not being in the presence of God is the primary concern. There may well be larger plans post the return of Christ that Lewis hints at in his Naranian stories, but the focus of God's special revelation is God and fixing things in relation to him. I was surprised to read Justification and not see a major role for the ending of Original Sin in Wright's grand narrative.

[Picture is of the world's longest bridge in Japan. Note how you can talk about the bridge, the purpose of the bridge and all the individuals kept safe by the bridge.]


John Dekker said...

Is this a summary *for* Shyborg or *by* Shyborg? ;)

Great caption for the pic. That's the sort of thing I was going to do with my book on the Trinity all those years ago.

Andrew Bowles said...

Following this debate, I've felt that people have been a bit tough on both sides. Neither Piper nor Wright are great systematic theologians. Wright is pushing a quite legitimate agenda of letting the texts speak a bit more clearly from their context. Piper has a legitimate pastoral focus on how evangelism looks in our era. The debate has degenerated now into people trying to show how balanced and grand their theology is. No-one with any credibility would suggest that either of these guys are on the dark side. Douglas Wilson's quote in your previous post is a great example of how I see it going in the near future - people alter their language in response to Wright's insights and then claim that this was what they were saying all along. He's not the only one that I've seen doing it. I know that's cynical, but then, I believe in original sin too. ;)

Luke said...

Hi John,

It's *for* Shyborg!

Hi Andrew,

(Thanks for commenting by the way!) Two things briefly.

1. Although Wright may be trying to "let the texts speak a bit more clearly from their context" he doesn't actually do much of that in Justification. In fact he says himself in his preface that that his stated aim is to avoid "hand-to-hand fighting" over every line of Paul. Piper does seems to be the one more enmeshed in the texts. This is why in some senses they seem to be speaking past each other.

2. Wilson and DeYoung aren't rewriting history. As Wilson points out elsewhere Wright is simply articulating the classic post-mil position. (Edwards for example saw the whole bible through similar post-mil grand narrative.) Grand narrative covenental theology; is a very oldschool Reformed thing, it's been around ages before Wright. All Wright's done is take it and added the NNP definition of righteousness.

Andrew Bowles said...

I've found that as Wright's books get smaller, they also diminish in quality, so I can believe that he does a less convincing job in Justification than in the big books.

My point about Wilson et al was more that the NPP have made a fair call that Reformed/Lutherans have had an individualistic bias for a while, and needed to refresh their perspective on how to read the NT. Initially there seemed to be a lot of resistance to this, and quite a stir about how the NPP was distorting the gospel. But now the rhetoric has changed to a grudging acceptance of the critique and a recognition that they should have accepted it a bit earlier given their own tradition. So instead of hearing how dangerous Wright is, you hear about how he's not really saying anything new and what's all the fuss?

Luke said...

I think your partially right Andrew. It's not the grand narrative that's a problem it's the nuts and bolts of the grand narrative that is contested. Although as I observed above even Wright's grand narrative lacks a clear place for original sin. Wright as far as I can see is arguing that the driving force of the grand narrative has been misunderstood since Luther, and should be about messianic fulfillment. This is where Piper is good because while he concedes the role of a grand narrative he wants to argue it's driving force needs to be salvation-securing justice. (I'll blog about the definition of righteousness later.) God before soteriology, soteriology before eschatology!

Interestingly on Wilson, he's had Wright out to preach at their eschatological post-milll conferences, yet he himself has been invited by Piper to speak at one of Piper's conferences! I think this will be the best legacy of Wright and the NPP: The renewed emphasis on the grand narrative of scripture and history. Wright's take on righteousness, imputation of Christ's active obedience and final judgment, ultimately won't survive.

Al Bain said...

I haven't read Wight's book yet. But does he say anywhere that it is meant to be a defence/description of his understanding of the Bible's grand narrative? In other words, are you hopping into him about something that he specifically deals with? Or are you reading something in (or out) of a book which deals with only one aspect of theology?

I guess the problem with Wright is that he develops his theology piecemeal. He's been talking about publishing his magnum opus on Pauline Theology for ages now but is yet to do it.

As for your problem with his ignoring of Original Sin. Are you only looking at his most recent book or have you read all his stuff?

Luke said...

Hi Al,

I've only read Justification, a few dictionary articles, his Romans for everyone commentary, a tiny part of his Corinthians for everyone commentary and listened to one sermon. At Ridley faculty promoted his tome about the Resurrection but the rest of the time we won't really encouraged to read him.

Wright specifically states in his preface that although his book is written as a general response to Piper is to intended to be summary of his entire take on Justification. "I do not suppose I am actually saying very much that I have not already said elsewhere." (xi)

I hope I'm not reading into him, given that he is clearly seeking to lay out his take on the Grand Narrative. I was only wondering how Original Sin fitted into his big scheme of things along with getting my head around the debate about justification.

Al Bain said...

I'm looking forward to reading where this all takes you.

Thanks for getting back to me.