Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Future of Justification: Part 3

The first chapter of Piper’s book is titled, “Caution: Not All Biblical-Theological Methods and Categories Are Illuminating. The first thing that Piper addresses is one that I hadn’t considered a problem in the past when I’ve read Wright. Piper reminds his readers that both Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology have their problems. However, since Wright seems to undermine most Systematic Theologies by his own practice of Biblical Theology, Piper sees fit to point out that Biblical Theologies are just as susceptible to error as Systematic Theology is.

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.


Raffi Shahinian said...


I've read quite a bit of Wright, and it seems to me that what he's doing is not so much using the secondary sources to interpret the NT, or vice-versa. Rather, he's using all available sources to generate a reliable socio-historic-linguistic-(etc.) picture, and then re-reading the text from within that matrix. Do you think that's a fairer characterization of Wright's method? If so, does it elude Piper's critique? Love to hear what you think.

Grace and Peace,
Raffi Shahinian

Christopher said...


I'll respond within a day or so. But first I should mention that from what you've written, all I can see is that you are repeating, in a slightly more expanded way, what I meant and what I think Piper means when we say that Wright gives too much weight to the socio-historic-linguistic-(etc.) context.

Simply put, what Piper is saying is that the s-h-l-(e) is less understood and far less coherent than the Scriptures are themselves. Therefore, the secondary sources should only be used to the degree that they agree with the Word and shed light on the Word.

Since I don't have time right now to flesh this out with an example, I'll have to follow up later. But so you know where I'm going to go with this, I'll address the New Perspective's conception of Covenant Nomism and how that influences their reading of the Text.

I'll argue that the concept is too weak, that is, not fully supported by the first century context, and therefore can not be used to the degree that they use it when interpreting Paul.

Thanks for the interaction.



Jon said...

Have you seen this blog?

Raffi Shahinian said...

Jon, yes I've see Trevin's take on the issue and I frequent his blog often. I also touched upon the issue today in my blog, though from a somewhat different "perspective." I'd love to hear what you think (you too, Christopher).

Grace and Peace,
Raffi Shahinian

Christopher said...


Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I want to answer your questions about Wright’s method and Piper’s critique. First, you acknowledge the Wright is attempting to construct a “reliable” context within which to read Paul’s writings. For his part, Piper is questioning the reliability of these modern reconstructions.

As the New Perspective on Paul is best known for its reading of Paul through the lens of covenant nomism, I think it is important to assess whether or not this theological grid was as wide spread as we are being told and whether or not we should really read the New Testament writings through this grid.

If I’m not mistaken, the NPP can all be boiled down to these two statements:

1) We now know, through our research of Second Temple Judaism, that the Jews in Palestine were essentially a faithful people, attempting to please God by living obedient lives through faith in the promises of God. By in large, Israel was not a legalistic nation that was seeking to earn God’s favor by doing the works of the law. Rather, they acknowledged that, by God’s grace, they were in a covenantal relationship with God that required obedience to the law. They only obeyed the law to the degree that it demonstrated their faith in the promises made in the covenant.

2) On the basis of this new understanding of Second Temple Judaism, we need to determine what Paul’s main problem was with the Jews of his day. It could be that he was addressing a very small minority of legalistic Jews, or it could be that we have totally misunderstood his writings and we need to construct a new perspective on Paul’s writings.

What Piper is saying, and I agree with him, is that our reconstruction of Early Judaism is not nearly as reliable as scholars make it out to be. As such, we are not forced to rethink the way we read Paul.

For my part, I think that even if it could be proved that covenant nomism was the predominate worldview of the Jews in Paul’s day, it could still be the case the Paul didn’t like it either and was attacking it in his letters. Either way, I haven’t seen anything that requires a rereading of Paul’s writings.

I’m curious, since you appreciate what N.T. Wright is doing, what are some of the core finds of Wright and other NPP folks that you think require us to read Paul in a new way?



Raffi Shahinian said...


I see your points and you pose an interesting interesting that I decideded to dedicate an entire post on the subject.

Hope to hear from you about it.


Tandy said...

I know this tread is not dealing specifically with the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but you did bring it up as did Piper. Within his courteous treatment of Wright, Piper used these words and others to describe Wright’s treatment of the gospel and justification - “disfigured,” “distorted,” and “blurred.” Just how disfigured, distorted and blurred does teaching on the gospel have to become before Galatians 1:8-9 applies? I would like to know where Piper and others would draw the line.

Happy New Year!