Learning about mirror-reading from Tom Wright (unintentionally)

I am happily speeding my way through reading Tom Wright’s new Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (SPCK, 2009).  It is a fascinating read (which is why I am able to go so fast!) and I will be posting more detailed thoughts on the book later.  Wright is a master communicator and anyone (regardless of theological persuasion) could learn from his very engaging and easy-on-the-ears writing style.

But, I had a thought as I progressed through the book.  This is an odd sort of text becuase it is essentially a response (to John Piper) that is not written directly to Piper, but to the audience that Wright wishes to gain a hearing from.  He is clearing the air, defending his name, clarifying his own theology, and taking a small chance to counter the kind of theology that people like Piper are promoting.  Reading Wright’s book reminded me of the many challenges of reading Paul’s letters especially as you have to try to figure out why Paul is saying the things he is and when he directly responding to his opponents (his John Pipers) and when he just theologizing and telling his audience what he thinks about X, Y, and Z.

Sometimes Wright is indignant.  So Paul.  Sometimes Wright gives you little hints at what his ‘debator’ or ‘Agitator’ has said.  So Paul.  Sometimes Wright slips into ‘theology’ mode and it is as if the Agitator never existed.  So Paul.  Sometimes Wright is using the one Agitator as an example of all his opponents who do the same kind of invective rhetoric.  So Paul.  All the while Wright is too busy, too tired, too annoyed to be wholly consumed with convincing the Agitator of anything, let along everything.  Wright simply wants his major audience (Christian believers) to hear the truth of his Gospel straight from the horse’s mouth.  So Paul.  Wright often acknowledges that he is on the same ‘team’, so to speak, as his Agitator and he wishes that he were not so often the target of friendly fire.  So Paul.  Wright’s Agitator says, ‘I only care about being a good pastor to God’s people and helping them to grow in faith’.  Wright says, ‘Don’t forget, I am also a ‘pastor’ of God’s people’.  This sounds an awful lot like Paul!

If for nothing else, and indeed there is much wisdom in these pages, reading Wright’s book has helped me to understand better the challenges of mirror-reading.  Chapter  by chapter I have to guess at what Piper has said about Wright.  Sometimes it is clearly spelled out by Wright.  Other times you really have to strain to figure it out.  Of course the difference here is that I could go out and buy Piper’s book… But I’m not going to.


11 thoughts on “Learning about mirror-reading from Tom Wright (unintentionally)

  1. I expect that this has some bearing on the alleged axiom that one should get one’s PhD in the country in which one wants to work. Speaking of which, how does your job search go, Nijay?

  2. Nijay having read Piper and reading Wright`s book I have to agree with much of what you say. Wright is attempting I believe is not just to answer Piper but to the whole American Evangelical world-view which sees Wright as a `straw man`. If this is a prelude to what his magnus opus on Paul will be like I would like to put on order now. I have not access to his work on Romans I wondered how it compared. The most interesting aspect of the book is I must say is the exegetical sections on Paul`s Letters

  3. Very interesting comparison. I wonder, how do John Barclay’s mirror-reading principles affect the way you approach mirror-reading Wright?

  4. Nijay,

    I’m disappointed. Why settle for the convoluted impression (i.e., mirror-reading Wright) when you can clearly perceive the form (i.e., Piper’s precise words and hesitations)??


  5. John G – good question! You sound like Barclay himself! He would be proud…

    I think Barclay’s principles are helpful here, though we do have the benefit of having the ‘original’ piece by Piper. What is most helpful from Barclay is the principle of ‘tone’ – Wright’s tone, at times. is cynical, sometimes irascible, sometimes down-right frustrated and annoyed. Also, repetition – Wright keeps beating the ‘I am a Pastor too’ drum and it sounds an awful lot like when Paul flashes his credentials – only for the sake of trying to set aside that issue altogether. Good idea in bringing up the ‘controls’ on my act of reading Paul through Wright. On the spectrum of theologizing with no controls to just simply not theologizing at all, I lean too far on the former side….as my supervisors have told me… 🙂

  6. Dave – well, I guess since I feel that I am not missing out on much by reading Paul and not the ‘original’ words of his opponents and troublemakers, I guess I don’t feel too bad…. 🙂

    (NB: Dave and I are friends, I am only making a joke)

  7. Nice! Love the disclaimer by the way. I still think you should read Piper, though, for I’m sure you would jump on the first opportunity to read a letter directly from Paul’s opponents themselves!

    (BTW, I pray all is well in the Gupta household, especially with the beautiful addition to the family!)

  8. Why stop there?

    Wright has written on the resurrection. So Paul.
    Wright is a follower of Christ. So Paul.
    Wright is a male human being. So Paul.
    Wright was once a child. So Paul.


  9. This is a great post, Nijay. I’ve only read a few pages of this work by Wright but having read everything else he’s written that I can get my hands on, I think you’re dead-on. The Piper/McArthur/Grudem contingent, while brothers in Christ, often leave such a bad taste in my mouth and just come across as annoying. Of course, not being Reformed in my theology, doesn’t help. 🙂

    BTW, do you have any idea when Wright’s 4th volume in the series will be finished?

    Blessings, man.

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