Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Justification and New Perspective 4

NTWright.jpgWe 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.

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posted May 12, 2009 at 8:35 am

“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?”
Perhaps it is both. I think Paul is concerned with personal salvation and with the community of God’s people and it’s engagement with the world. There is a point at which personal salvation becomes shallow without a community of Christ followers that does not really impact the world.

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posted May 12, 2009 at 8:37 am

One more thought… I think Wright is correct in his assumptions that the closer we can get to the authorial context, the more accurate interpretors we can be regarding the meaning of the NT. That is entirely logical.

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Derek Leman

posted May 12, 2009 at 8:44 am

First, the idea of giving people in the 16th century some sort of authority in terms of defining the meaning of Paul: nonsense. The Reformers should be respected for their courage, but they were fallible men who repeated the mistakes of imperial church, even in some cases to imprisoning and having executed those who disagreed with their movement. They were only two steps removed from the Medieval imperialistic church. They were very far removed from the movement of Jesus and Paul.
Second, it should be obvious that historical context is key to understanding rhetorical texts. The fact that Piper decries this tendency in Wright should expose Piper for what he is: a person stuck in the Reformation and unable to immerse himself in the world of the Bible.
Derek Leman

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posted May 12, 2009 at 9:14 am

Good post, Scot. It is deeply ironic for a reformed theologian, in a discussion about how justification is actually presented by Paul, to appeal to tradition of interpretation over and against actual exegesis in the way Wright is describing.

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Jim Marks

posted May 12, 2009 at 9:20 am

I think it is kind of hysterical that a staunch Protestant who demands “plain reading” to come to common sense understandings of Scripture is using -the traditional church position- to defend his interpretations because a contemporary interpretation can’t be trusted. If that doesn’t illustrate the very heart of the problem with a Rational Enlightenment worldview and a sola scriptura theology, I don’t know what does.
No matter how old or how new the interpretation to which you defer may be, it is NOT CANON, and therefore can and must be questioned rigorously or we become idolaters. Wright is not Paul. Calvin is not Paul. Augustine is not Paul. Paul is not G-d.

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Travis Greene

posted May 12, 2009 at 10:08 am

“The future of justification will be better served, I think, with older guides rather than the new ones”
Very true. That’s why I’ll stick with Paul rather than Luther’s understanding of Paul.
Why is there such a defensive reaction to all this? (That’s a rhetorical question, I get why.) To acknowledge that Luther was reading Paul against a backdrop of abusive medieval church practices that colored his reading of the text (and led him to some very right conclusions about indulgences and so forth) is not to denigrate him. Similarly, acknowledging that Thomas Jefferson was a man of his time and owned slaves, a very great evil, doesn’t insult his better qualities and ideas. It just acknowledges that these people are human, and sinful, and limited, and thus open to correction. As are we.

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Alan Cross

posted May 12, 2009 at 10:18 am

The Reformers returned to the church a message of great importance, I.e., Justification by Faith. The problem comes when the implications of salvation are reduced to that and personal sanctification. The Reformers had a weak view of the local church and were immersed in Renaissance Humanism. That was not all bad because we did need a recovery of the personal, but it was not the whole story.
Why can’t it be both-and? Why do we have to reduce the atonement to one perspective or another? Why can’t the atonement be all that the Bible says it is and everything else flow out as implications of the atonement?

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John C

posted May 12, 2009 at 10:24 am

Luther’s intense preoccupation with personal destiny and his fear of hell clearly owe a huge amount to late medieval Western Catholicism – indeed, one could argue that modern Reformed Protestants like Piper are more late medieval than they know. The French historian Jean Delumeau’s book ‘Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries’, makes the case that Christianity became increasingly preoccupied with sin and fear in the centuries prior to and following Luther.
Having said that, Delumeau is a liberal Catholic who wants to undermine the guilt and fear associated with pre-Vatican II Catholicism. One could argue that both late medieval assumptions and late modern ones (e.g. our desire to domesticate God and develop a therapeutic spirituality) distort Paul.

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posted May 12, 2009 at 10:27 am

A few thoughts…
– While I think we should always try and get back to the original authors intent & context, it is impossible to fully interpret the text apart from our own context. So while Piper may be hanging onto an interpretation from those who went before us, Wright is also influenced by his own context. We need to remember our views on the text are shaped by the reader as well.
– While I agree we should always be reforming, we should not totally forget or ignore those who came before us whenever modern research seems to point in a new direction. We can explore the new direction for sure, but to slam Piper for holding onto interpretations made popular in the Reformation (and agreed upon by most Protestants for 400 years) is not totally foolish. We should be careful whenever we reinterpret the scripture away from so many who have come before us.
Anyway, I write this as someone who probably agrees with Wright’s interpretations, but at the same time wanted to push back against the anti-Piper vibe I was feeling

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posted May 12, 2009 at 10:54 am

Somehow I’m hearing Forrest Gump as I’m reading the post and the comments:
I don’t know if Momma was right or if, if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.

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Joe B

posted May 12, 2009 at 11:01 am

I just cannot say how much I appeciate the effort that goes into your book reviews. You have such a keen sense of moderation, but such a progressive openness to Truth. I hate to miss a day of Jesus Creed.
I never say stuff like that, Scott, but i just thought you ought to know what i say behind your back.
Thanks for the hard work that goes into this blog every day.

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Scott Morizot

posted May 12, 2009 at 11:38 am

Alan (#7), My early shaping was deeply pluralistic and I retain those impulses today. I’ll never be the sort of black and white hard line guy you see produced from some expressions of American modern culture. With that said, when you really begin to dig below the surface, you find that some versions of the atonement are such that their portrayals of God, of Jesus, and of what is happening on the Cross are such that they are saying very different things that can’t easily be reconciled with each other, if they can be reconciled at all.
For instance, it’s not particularly difficult to have a both-and with the theories of penal substitution and satisfaction. They are not the same, but they are similar enough to be compatible. By the same token, the Christus Victor family of atonement theories, notably recapitulation and ransom, fit together easily. Other theories, such as the exemplar theory, can fit in some form or another with pretty much all the different theories.
But I’ve spent a lot of time delving through the theories, writings about the theories, and Scripture and I don’t see any way to simultaneously look at God and the Cross through the ransom or recapitulation lens AND through the lens of satisfaction or penal substitution – at least without redefining one or the other to the point where they look utterly unlike what those who proposed the theories intended them to say. They just don’t say the same thing about God at all.
I think I spent too much time reading patristics before I stumbled across Wright four or five years ago. Wright has more information (especially through the dead sea scrolls) about Judaism before the destruction of Jerusalem than many of the first millenium Christian fathers had available. So in a lot of instances, the things he says can be more refined and more specific and more detailed. But when I read Wright, I didn’t see a whole lot that was ‘new’, so I found it odd that it was labeled ‘new perspective’. I haven’t read or heard him say anything that’s incompatible with the perspective of many in the first millenium, though he often adds to and extends the discussion. But it’s not discontinuous. It seems to me that many seem to talk about perspectives as if there were none earlier than the second millenium of our faith.

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Tim Gombis

posted May 12, 2009 at 11:42 am

You can sense Wright?s frustration as you read this chapter, but I must say that I completely understand!! In this very narrow sense, the conversation has not changed one bit, refusing to move in anything like a redemptive direction. I noticed this in the mid-90?s, with some of the early critiques of the ?new perspective,? such as those from Michael Horton?s publications, etc. The conversation basically ran like this:
Dunn/Wright: ?The Protestant reading of Paul, following Luther and Calvin, has missed the mark and must be corrected/modified in light of a historically-sensitive reading of the texts of Romans and Galatians.?
Critics: ?What is called the New Perspective is wrong because it is different from what the tradition, following Luther and Calvin, has said.?
This interchange, in which people continue to talk past each other, has repeated itself in a variety of settings for the past 15 years, which is tragic. Piper?s book is simply more of the same. It seems to me that evangelicals need to have an extended discussion about what it means to be truly evangelical.
Wright says in this chapter that Piper?s insistence that Paul ought NOT to be understood in his historical setting is ?truly disturbing.? All I can say is a sad, but hearty, ?amen!?
You?re exactly right in your jacket blurb that Wright ?out-Reforms? the Neo-Reformed in this entire discussion.

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Matt Edwards

posted May 12, 2009 at 12:46 pm

While I have been disappointed with Piper’s book, I think his cautions in chapter one are valuable.
While a few scholars out there may know more about one or two extra-biblical sources than they do about the entire New Testament, on the whole scholarship knows way more about the New Testament than we about any of the other Second Temple literature. Piper’s warning that we don’t always understand the extra-biblical sources is wise.
Second, Piper rightly warns against parallelomania. Just because we see a phrase or an idea in a contemporary piece, does not mean: (1) that the parallel is the basis for the biblical idea, or even (2) that the biblical author is even aware of the extra-biblical parallel.
Finally, Piper is right that sometimes we misapply insights from extra-biblical texts to the Bible. A clear example of this is the phrase “works of the law” in 4QMMT. Both sides of the debate claim that 4QMMT supports their interpretation.
The argument isn’t as simple as saying “this is what justification means in the context of the first century world.” The first century world was not monolithic. Scholars have pointed out for years that there was no such thing as “Second Temple Judaism,” but rather Second Temple Judaisms. To understand the language of Paul, you have to understand the language of the Pharisees. One significant weakness of the NPP is that the only primary first-century source that we have written by a Pharisee about Pharisees is Philippians 3. It’s tough to argue about “what the Pharisees believed about justification” when you don’t have any sources.
That being said, Wright is fully aware of the limits to his method. The other side of it is that sometimes we do understand extra-biblical texts, sometimes there is consistency, sometimes there are parallels, and sometimes we rightly point out those parallels. Wright is one of the best guys out there at determining when there is a parallel and what it means.
I am 2/3 of the way through Piper’s book, and it is clear that he and Wright are not on the same page when it comes to method. Piper argues like a systematic theologian, making a point and quoting a proof text. Wright argues like a biblical theologian, pointing out context and background. Piper hasn’t advanced any new arguments against the NPP, and I don’t think this discussion is going anywhere.

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Brian McLaughlin

posted May 12, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Wright’s book is a direct response to Piper, so it is legitimate that the focus is on Piper. Also, the critiques against Piper of being captive to the theology of the 16th century are also legitimate.
But lets not forget that there are scholarly dissents to NPP that do not fit into the Piper category. Wright, in his interview with Trevin Wax says Justification and Variegated Nomism is “a collection of fine essays by fine scholars” (of course, he isn’t happy with Carson’s summary of the essays!). He also says Moo is an excellent Pauline scholar who “is constantly grappling with the text…I won’t always agree with his exegesis, but there is a relentless scholarly honesty about him which I really tip my hat off to.”
I merely mention this to make the point that not all NPP dissenters fall into the same category as Piper. This issue [Paul and NPP] remains a legitimate scholarly debate, does it not? Or are we claiming that it is case closed because NPP dissenters are all biased Neo-Reformers?

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Josh Rowley

posted May 12, 2009 at 1:41 pm

“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.”
As Scot suggests, it is exactly this approach that Piper impugns in his first chapter. He interprets Paul as if the apostle wrote in a vacuum.
I’ve reviewed Piper’s intro(s) and first three chapters on my blog.

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Hunter Beaumont

posted May 12, 2009 at 3:09 pm

On Method: The Reformation return “to the sources” was both a return to the biblical text and a return to the Patristic interpreters. Calvin and Luther assumed a congruence between how the Church Fathers interpreted Scripture and the original author’s intent. And they went to great lengths to demonstrate their agreement with both.

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John W Frye

posted May 13, 2009 at 10:48 am

What Piper and the neo-Reformed critics of NPP will not admit is that Martin Luther was captive to his culture with its insistence on Medieval meritorious works. We are glad Luther reacted against that error. But we are not glad that Luther and other Reformers read into Paul and Jesus their 16th century issues. Wright and other NPPers clearly point out that “works of TORAH” were never viewed as meritorious toward *earning* salvation. This was not a Jewish category; it was Medieval Catholicism.
I am stunned (should I say appalled?) that Piper with one broad brush stroke writes off the interplay of lexical, historical, and cultural studies because those studies challenge his “system.” I can just hear the leading Catholic scholars of Luther’s day saying, “We need to pay more attention to the old guides, not these upstart rabble-rousers named Luther and Calvin.” I’m sorry, but to me Piper does not demonstrate genuine biblical and theological inquiry and reflection, but a panicked, anemic defense of his entrenched Reformed tradition.

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Ted M. Gossard

posted May 13, 2009 at 11:24 pm

Sometimes I think N.T. Wright doesn’t pay enough attention to individual salvation, like in it’s beside the point with him. But when I read Paul it really does seem to be couched in terms of community and kingdom.
I do look forward to getting and reading this book!

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