Thus far, Piper’s words seemed irrelevant to his interaction with Wright, but Piper follows up with three sections that strike at the heart of Wright’s theological method and which resonate with my thoughts as I’ve read Wright.
First, N.T. Wright has gotten a lot of mileage out of using secondary primary sources. This sounds odd but I’ll explain. Wright has done some extensive scholarly work with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Specifically, he has done a lot of work on how Jewish religious groups like the Essenes saw themselves in relation to God and the covenants of the Old Testament. However, even though he is working with these primary sources, to the degree that he uses them to interact with the Bible, they are merely secondary sources, much like our own works.
The first section in the chapter is called, “Misunderstanding the Sources.” What Piper states in this small section (just three short paragraphs) may be the most insightful thing I’ve read so far as it relates to the New Perspective. Since the New Perspective on Paul has begun reading Paul in the light of our modern scholarship on the secondary sources like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Piper reminds us that much of that scholarship is in its early stages and that the scope of the study is necessarily much more limited than we might think.
This is the sentence that stuck out most:
It is remarkable how frequently there is a tacit assumption that we can be more confident about how we interpret secondary first-century sources than we are of how we interpret the New Testament writers themselves.
This strikes at the heart of the issue for me. I think it is assumed by the scholarly community that Paul has written some things “that are hard to understand.” Therefore, they go outside the realm of the Scriptures to find other sources that might help shed some light on what Paul has written. This in and of itself is not a bad thing; in fact it can be very helpful. However, when a secondary source that is also hard to understand is given the right of way to override an otherwise clear statement of Paul, we have an unwarranted case of eisegesis.
In making his argument, Piper points out that,
In general, this [secondary] literature has been less studied than the Bible and does not come with a contextual awareness matching what most scholars bring to the bible.
Because many NT scholars are focusing so much attention on the secondary sources at this point, Piper is thankful for, and likely hopeful for even more,
Competent scholarly works that call into question the seemingly assured interpretations of extra-biblical sources that are sometimes used to give biblical texts meanings that their own contexts will not bear.
Knowing Piper and his other works, I confident that Piper’s primary rule for interpretation is what Reformed pastors and scholars call the analogy of faith. That is, our primary sources for understanding the hard texts in the Bible are the clear statements made elsewhere in the Bible. Scripture interprets Scripture. To the degree that the interpretive community is given free reign to interpret Scripture, even if it is the early community that would have been the first to read the texts, we lose the authority of Scripture and then all becomes a game, a deadly game the results in power plays and true oppression.
N.T. Wright is rightly looking for a reading of Scripture that will loose the bonds of oppression, but I’m scared that his method will ultimately undermine his good intentions.