I am slowly working through Piper’s criticism of N. T. Wright in his book The Future of Justification and plan to share my thoughts here from time-to-time. The notes are rough because this is a blog post, not an academic paper.
My criticism of this chapter (Chapter One) can be summed up in one statement:
Each of Piper’s criticisms of Wright could equally be leveled against Piper himself.
This is true in three areas:
1. Piper’s criticisms of Wright’s methodology are criticisms against methodology everyone uses (including Piper).
Piper is so sure that Wright misunderstands the sources but he himself hasn’t even studied or read the sources. He apparently hasn’t even studied all of Wright’s works since he only regularly cites two.
The high valuing of biblical theology that Piper mentions (33-34) is a trend that actually began with Geerhardus Vos, a leading light in the Reformed movement of the early twentieth century. Biblical theology serving as foundational to systematics is part of evangelical methodology taught and used in many circles, even by some who do not value Wright or Dunn. And it stands to reason that since Systematic Theology must rely on an accurate reading of the texts that support one’s theological propositions, Biblical Theology serves as a control over Systematics. I’ll allow that I could be misunderstanding Piper but as i have read and re-read this, I fail to see the problem.
2. Piper’s criticism that Wright is enamored with the new is not radically different than Piper’s being enamored with the old.
Why give priority to sixteenth-century sources over first-century sources?
Piper’s valuing of sixteenth-century sources may come with more “contextual awareness” and they most certainly have been studied more, but this warning applies to himself as well: The Reformation Confessions and the conclusions of the Reformers must be measured against Scripture.
When he says that systematic categories and first-century ideas have been “sweeping scholarship along and then evaporating in the light of the stubborn clarity of biblical texts” (35) he overstates his case. Even conservative traditional scholars have found value in many of the conclusions of people like Wright and Dunn. Piper’s refusal to find value in them demonstrates a refusal to hear anything outside the sources with which he hinmself is familiar and with which he himself agrees.
3. Piper’s criticism that “first-century ideas can be used (inadvertently) to distort and silence what the New Testament writers intended to say” (34) is a statement that is true regardless of what century is mentioned.
This could be true of 21st century ideas. This could be true of 16th or 17th century ideas.
Just because people misuse sources or draw erroneous conclusions from sources doesn’t mean that the sources themselves are not important. Who determines which sources are valuable and which are not? It seems that Piper only wants his readers to study sources that confirm the conclusions he has already reached.
I would add one other point about Piper’s criticism:
I noted earlier that Piper says that a particular first-century view put forth may be one among many (35) and that the first-century literature has been less studied than the Bible and so does not come with the same “contextual awareness” (35). His conclusion is that we should, because of this, be suspicious of this line of inquiry.
Yet I think Piper contradicts himself when he says later that there is a profound ignorance of the wisdom of the centuries (38). I get first-century sources have been “less studied than the Bible” and we sometimes lack “contextual awareness” (35), but isn’t the solution to that problem to study them more rather than to study them less? This criticism sounds like nonsensical advice along the lines of “Don’t go near the water till you learn how to swim.”
Piper exalts Scripture, as he should, but if we take Piper’s criticism’s to their logical conclusions, we are left with the conclusion that we can only study Scripture itself and not use any outside resources to come to a conclusion about what Scripture teaches. That would include the Confessions, commentators, and theologians of the sixteenth century as well.