Not all of Piper’s Critiques of Wright’s Methodology and Sources are Illuminating

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.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, New Perspective on Paul, New Testament Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Not all of Piper’s Critiques of Wright’s Methodology and Sources are Illuminating

  1. You write, “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.”

    I would rather say is as follows: both biblical theology and systematic theology depend on exegesis. Exegesis is the life-blood of them both, but each of them approaches revelation in different ways. Moreover, each of these serves as a check against the other. I would not say that either of these comes first. It’s more of an all-or-nothing. If some fanciful biblical theological reading goes against the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as systematics puts forth, well, too bad for the fanciful reading! On the other hand, if some logician swerves out of the way in his systematics and tries to ignore that over-arching structure of revelation that biblical theology provides, too bad for the logician.

    The problem with biblical theology being “before” systematics is that you must have presuppositions even to do your biblical theology!

    My two cents.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Adrian!

      I see your point and I should have been more clear (these are rough notes after all).

      What I was talking about was how BT helps us locate a given text in the flow of redemptive history and allows us interpret the text in light of its place in salvation history. When I said that BT comes before ST I was referring to how that understanding of the text gained through BT provides a control so that when that text is used as part of a systematic rendering of a particular theological loci, we know already that we have understood the text properly and have not read back into the text a later theological idea.

      I hope that makes more sense. Thanks for the input. Such input keeps me on my toes.

  2. I would agree with all you’ve said. All I’m saying is that systematics provides an equally important check on BT. It’s a two-way street, and I don’t think one direction is more or less important than the other. They’re both simply different but equally valid ways of looking at the Bible. Systematics can and should prevent the likes of Pete Enns from going off the deep end in terms of inspiration and inerrancy. Enns is a sad example of BT allowed to run amok with no systematic checks. I am firmly against the notion that it is only the systematicians who read things into Scripture. Mind you: they have done so – I’m not saying they haven’t. But I have seen BT do exactly the same thing. And by the way, church history should inform both of these disciplines as well. Church history has a wonderful way of showing that there really aren’t any new heresies – just old ones dressed in new clothes and mixed up a little. And while we’re at it, let’s throw apologetics and practical theology into the mix and call it one nice whole package.

    Cheers.

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