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
The 2d chp of this book deals with the rules of engagement. Here is Wright’s simple approach: “The rules for engagement for any debate about Paul must be, therefore, exegesis first and foremost, with all historical tools in full play, not to dominate or to squeeze the text out of shape into which it naturally forms itself but to support and illuminate a text-sensitive, argument-senstive, nuance-sensitive reading” (51).
In other words: (1) read the text (2) in its immediate, authorial, biblical context, and (3) all in their historical contexts so far as we can discern them.
John Piper counters this method by suggesting in his book that Wright
gives too much credence to non-biblical sources and to novel
interpretations. Piper thinks too much biblical theology has become too
fascinated with historical context that is then used to reinterpret Paul’s
plain sense. For some reason (Piper, The Future of Justification,
34-35), Piper thinks our knowledge of the NT is more secure than our
readings of non-biblical texts. This, so it seems to me, begs the
question and it is simply not accurate: this all depends on text and
scholar. I know plenty who know more about the Dead Sea Scrolls or the
Rabbis or the Pseudepigrapha than they do about the New Testament.
Still, Piper’s point is of importance: there is a history of
interpretation, accurate or not (is the point), that can guide us in NT
reading and some bring issues from elsewhere to the NT and then reinterpret the NT and get it wrong. But Wright’s point then needs to be clearly stated: that interpretive history Piper defers to
may be wrong, and when it is wrong it can be stubbornly resistant to
This is the problem many of us have observed at times in the critique of the new perspective, and we sense it when John Piper says things like this: “The future of justification will be better served, I think, with older guides rather than the new ones” (The Future of Justification, 25). As Wright observes, Piper quotes Scott Manetsch who argues for a return to the 16th Century Reformers …. well, yes, I say to myself. But …. but … but … Is this even Protestant except in a traditional sense? Isn’t this the very approach the Reformers themselves protested? Yes, it is.
I say, ad fontes! Back to the sources … and that is exactly what Wright will do, and it is what Piper did in his book. The issue then is one of method. I contend that we should say it as did Wright:
1. The author’s text.
2. In that author’s context and in the biblical sweep of context.
3. In their historical contexts.
Now the issue will become — Was the 1st Century context of Paul the context that animated the Protestant Reformers and the way justification has been understood in the evangelical tradition, namely as concerned first and foremost (and almost entirely) with personal salvation? That, my friends, is the question at work in the debate about the new perspective. Wed and Friday we will look at how Tom Wright understands the principle terms of debate.