We are discussing Tom Wright’s new book , a book that responds to John Piper’s criticism of Wright and the New Perspective (Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision
) and we want to dip today into chp one and Tom’s graphic opening image.
But first another point: read this book, please read this book. If you don’t like the new perspective and all things Tom Wright or Jimmy Dunn or EP Sanders, you especially need to read this book. And if you do like Tom Wright, you’ll read this book anyway. Know what he is saying before making the claim that new perspective stuff is wrong-headed.
Back to his image: Tom imagines having a friend who thinks the sun revolves around the earth; he tells the friend it’s not so and provides evidence and charts. The friend takes him to the edge of the village early in the morning and watches the sun rise and says, “Well, there you go.”
This illustration immediately sets the tone — it’s kind of enough but it suggests that the critics of the new perspective can at times sound pre-Copernican. Wright says this: “And the problem is not that he [Piper], like many others, is disagreeing with me. The problem is that he hasn’t really listened to what I’m saying” (21). Well, I don’t know I’d put it that way and I want to explain myself …
When I first taught the book of Galatians from a new perspective angle way back in the late 1980s, one that emphasized a salvation-historical approach that came more from Sanders than even Dunn, I had a strange experience. One of my students was a Lutheran and the entire semester, no matter how hard I tried to explain myself in simple and clear prose — and I’m confident that what I said was clear and he affirmed my points were clear — this student couldn’t get it. And it wasn’t because he wasn’t sharp; he was a very good student.
The problem was a paradigm shift at such a level that everything was different — but until the whole was comprehended, the parts couldn’t be comprehended. This student’s experience has been typical for me whenever talking new perspective stuff to those who are thoroughly Lutheran or Reformed — and, as I have indicated, the issue is an Augustinian anthropology and starting point for the problem the gospel actually addresses and resolves. So I think Piper does listen; he just thinks about the very same texts is different ways.
Back to Wright… “My friend [here he’s referring his critics] has simply not allowed the main things I have been trying to say to get anywhere near his conscious mind” (21). Wright is saying that the anti-New Perspective critics operate in a Reformed view that is imposed from without and not from the meaning of the texts in Paul’s context. In other words, it is the defense of a tradition instead of exposition of the letters of Paul.
And Wright thinks the primary question that his critics think Paul is addressing is the individualistic one: “What must I do to be saved?” But we are not the center of the universe Tom observes. We are in orbit around God and his purposes — that is what this debate is about for Tom Wright. And he thinks a cultural shift is at work that makes this issue — this very issue about the new perspective — so volatile (25-26).
In one of the more personal sketches, Wright makes it boldly clear that there is no such thing as the “new perspective” and that there are major differences between these scholars, and plenty who rarely get mentioned — Richard Hays, Douglas Campbell, Terry Donaldson and Bruce Longenecker. Then he observes how so much is simply left out in the sketches of Paul’s theology in its Jewish context by those who are in the Reformed and Lutheran camps and criticizing the new perspective (he says a few things here about Stephen Westerholm).