Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tom Wright: Justification 2

I won't be doing one of these every day, but I did have a chance to read Wright's second chapter of Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision. The second chapter is titled, "Rules of engagement."

My summary/review of the first chapter is here.

The thrust of this chapter is to say that exegesis of biblical texts is messy, but it is a core value for evangelicals. Its product is not systematic theology. The goal is the sermon, not a tidy system.

This sentence ironically summarizes Wright's critique of Piper well: "Proper evangelicals are rooted in scripture, and above all in the Jesus Christ to whom scripture witnesses, and nowhere else" (34).

Part 1
Again, Wright is thoroughly modernist in this chapter. In that sense I believe his hermeneutic is incomplete. He is right insofar as he is reminding us how to determine what the text meant originally. And thus he is right insofar as he critiques Piper, whose exegesis often qualifies as pre-modern, unaware of how read a text in its original context. To that extent, the metaphor of Piper trying to show Wright that the sun goes around the earth is apt.

Wright again gives great illustrations. He tells one about a woman who came to church the Sunday after Princess Diana died. But the pastor decided to follow the lectionary and preached on Mary, the mother of Jesus. After the sermon, the woman was in tears of puzzlement and grief. "Can you help me get the sermon's point?"

This woman, Wright means to say, is like Piper and others who come to the biblical text for answers to questions the text never addressed in the first place. "The history of the reading of Paul is littered with similar mistakes -- not always quite so obvious, but mistakes none the less: texts pressed into service to address questions foreign to the apostle, entire passages skimmed over in the hunt for the key word or phrase which fits the preconceived idea" (25).

One fun ironic move Wright makes in the first half of this chapter is to note that individuals like Piper, although they would fight tooth and nail for Paul as the literal author of Ephesians, still generally ignore it when they are reconstructing Paul's theology. He suggests that Piper would be much more accepting of the "new perspective" if he had begun there (28). "No wonder Lutheran scholars have been so suspicious of it. But why should that apply to conservative readers for whom it is every bit as much Holy Writ as Romans or Galatians."

Fun, although I don't think a person should start their theology of Paul with Ephesians. Then the skewing just goes in the opposite direction. Ephesians is distinct from Paul's other writings, regardless of affirming Pauline authorship. In my opinion, Wright, Johnson, and others are guilty of sloppy exegesis here, although they are popular at that point for the same reason Piper is--they come off as more traditional.

Wright ends the section with some very sound thoughts on distinguishing traditional interpretation from original meaning. He rightly points out again that "when faced with both the 'new perspective' and some of the other features of more recent Pauline scholarship, 'conservative' churches have reached, not for scripture, but for tradition, as with Piper's complaint that I am sweeping away fifteen hundred years of the church's understanding" (28).

I must point out, that he is referring to conservative Calvinists and Lutherans here. We Wesleyan-Arminians are quite carnally delighted to find out that our understanding of Paul fits much more nicely with these turns in scholarship than the Reformation mafia's does. The theology that the Reformers rejected has become the head of the corner... :-)

Not that Wright is Wesleyan-Arminian. Certainly Dunn is not. Sanders I think is, in background, although it won't do me any good politically to claim him. :-) Strong (foreign) Calvinist elements remain in some of Wright and Dunn's interpretations, I believe.

The reason I believe the return to reading Paul in his Jewish context--which is really what the new perspective is about--favors Arminian theology is because I believe the Jewish focus on concrete behavior remained in Paul's theology much more strongly than allowed for in Calvinist or certainly in Lutheran theology.

Wright rightly points out that doctrinal statements, not just those of Nicaea or Chalcedon, are a product of their time. Anselm did not unfold his spin on penal substitution in a vacuum, nor was the Westminister Confession created in a bubble. Piper and the neo-Reformed treat the WC the same way older Roman Catholics might have treated Trent. [I'm embellishing Wright a little, although not too much here]

Wright smiles on our esteemed fellow blogger Mike Bird, as well as J. I. Packer, for the fact that--while they affirm the idea of the imputation of Christ's righteousness theologically--they recognize that Paul never explicitly states it. The bottom line for Wright: "when our tradition presses us to regard as central something which is seldom if ever actually said by Paul himself we are entitled, to put it no more strongly, to raise an eyebrow and ask questions" (30).

Part 2
In the rest of the chapter, Wright rightly takes Piper to task for his feeble attempt to deny (that the earth goes around the sun) that the way to know what Paul meant is to read his words against the backdrop of the way words were used in Paul's day. This section, really, reveals what is really going on with Piper. Basically, contextual interpretation has caught him with his theological pants down.

What do you say when all of a sudden someone points out the obvious--uh, these words probably had a meaning to the people they were actually written to... and that meaning probably is a function of the way people used words at the time. What do you say? You're pants are down. It's embarrassing.

So Piper responds, "No they're not."

Wright: "Yes they are."

Piper, "Come back you lily livered coward. I'll bite your knees off."

Piper's feeble response is, we have to go with the obvious (to me given my schooling in the Calvinist tradition) meaning of the text without bringing in "dubious" information from the ancient world. Or in the words of early 1990's Saturday Night Live skit Cave Man Lawyer, "Your tall buildings frighten me."

Wright: "it is clear that what he [Piper] means is 'Please do not be seduced, by N. T. Wright or anyone else, into imagining that you need to read the New Testament within its first-century Jewish context'" (31).

By the way, Wright gives a good side critique of just one of D. A. Carson "My pants aren't on fire" projects, Justification and Variegated Nomism (another would be his Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament). These are nothing but the dying gasps of the Ptolemaic scientists who feel threatened by a heliocentric universe.

I have dipped into Variegated on various Early Jewish literature and have been puzzled almost every time. I have been puzzled because I haven't really found much to object to--nor have I found material that drastically undermined new perspective views on Judaism.

Here is Wright's comment: "To the extent that the essays there [in Variegated] are fully scholarly, they do not make the case their principal editor claims they do; to the extent that they appear to do so, they are themselves subject to question as being, to put it mildly, parti pris" (31-32).

The chapter ends with a critque of the NIV that, again, superbly fits things I have long said, although perhaps some of Wright's statements are a little extreme. While Wright was initially enthusiastic about the translation, "I discovered that the translators had had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one; to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said" (35). "I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about."


The TNIV has since corrected many of my issues with the NIV translation, just as the current generation of evangelical scholars are much better at reading the Bible in context than the first, American generation of evangelicals was (British evangelicals like F. F. Bruce and R. T. France have generally been superior to their American counterparts).


Anonymous said...

I don't know. I kind of sympathize with Piper's apparent view that trading the seeming surety of reading the epistles for yourself for a set of Jewish perspectives that scholars will spend decades debating is not such a good deal.

Oh sure, no one will take a stand against "seeking the truth" but while we're waiting for the answer to "What did the Book of Romans mean to diaspora Jews and gentiles in the 1st century?" how are we supposed to do any theology at all. Is the answer to this and many other equally important New Perspective even producible? Consider the Synoptic Problem. Or the question of whether 1C Palestinian Jews were strictly monotheistic? If each "serious" theologian has his own interpretation of early Jewish thought then are we any better off? You know that each will speak with the utmost authority, that groups of academicians will form schools of thought, that these views will come in and out of fashion as generations of graduate students write their theses. We will continue to be faced with the choice of deciding which school's views are likely to be correct. Sounds kind of like the situation we are in now.

Ken Schenck said...

Scott, these are good points, and they are why I so deeply value consensus. In terms of original meaning scholarship, there has actually been consensus or at least majority positions for over a hundred years on many issues (e.g., the synoptic question). I find it deeply troubling in those instances where evangelical thinking is agreed in the vast minority from broader scholarship, unless there are clear presuppositional issues involved.

And my value for consensus in the church leads me to my main critique of Wright as a modernist. In the end he stakes too much on the original meaning as the locus of inspiration.

Meanwhile Piper wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants it all to be about the text--but he wants to read the text in the light of his tradition.

Doug Chaplin said...

Thanks for this. I agree with your and Wright's comments about Variegated. I've just bought the book, now must find time to read it rather han relying on your summary!

JohnLeats said...

I also just bought 'Variegated' a few weeks ago. A little off topic, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on Carson and your familiarity with him.

Anonymous said...

Ken you are a good writers, I think I will buy a few of your books. Oh by the way did you coin the phrase "Reformation mafia"? I love it!