Monday, August 31, 2009

Tom Wright: Justification 2

I am blogging through N.T. Tom Wright's Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2: "Rules of engagement"
In this chapter, Wright reminds us that exegesis of biblical texts is messy; "the end in view is not a tidy system" (23) [don't get me started on the limitations and the abuse of systematic theologies]; Scripture "does not exist to authoritative answers to questions other than those it addresses" (24).

As theologians, as evangelicals, we are to "give primary attention to scripture itself,... to pay attention to the actual flow of the letter, to their content,... and to specific argunents that are being mounted at any one time" (24).

Wright argues that if we fail to do this, not only do we misread the text, but we end up "hearing only the echo of your own voice rather than the voice of God but also of missing the key point that the text was eager to tell you" (25-26) [my emphasis].

Wright also makes 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).

As a bit of an aside here, I need to point out, that Wright is referring to conservative Calvinists and Lutherans here. Those of us who have more of a Wesleyan-Arminian background find that our understanding of Paul fits a litter tighter with these turns in scholarship than that of the Reformers.

This so-called new perspective theology I believe leans toward Arminian theology because the Jewish focus on behavior is much stronger in Paul's theology than is allowed for in either Calvinist or especially Lutheran theology.

Back to Wright:
After quoting the younger blogger/theologian Michael Bird, and the statesman J. I. Packer, as affirming the idea of the imputation of Christ's righteousness theologically, while recognizing that Paul never explicitly states it, Wright adds: "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).

Piper is strongly averse to Wright's arguement about righteousness on the grounds that Paul does not use the specific terms. Wright promises to address this in the 2nd part of the book where he looks at the key biblical passages.

Section II of this chapter begins with an appeal to try and understand, as best we can, the context Paul wrote in. Wright takes exception to Pipers comment: "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). Piper argues that interpreters can distort through [these are my notes from reading Piper]:
  • A misunderstanding of first-century ideas or a greater confidence in these extra-biblical sources than the biblical source
  • A misunderstanding that one particular first-century idea may not represent other first-century ideas.
  • A misapplication of external idea to the biblical text. An NT writer may go beyond the extra-biblical material.
And so Piper concludes: "It will be salutary, therefore, for scholars and pastors and laypeople who do not spend much of their time reading first-century literature to have a modest skepticism when an overarching concept or worldview from the first century is used to give “new” or “fresh” interpretations to biblical texts that in their own context do not naturally give rise to these interpretations."

My comment on Piper: His warnings need to be noted, however, his conclusion essentially implies, 'let's rely on existing interpretations of the first-century literature, no matter how limited they are.' We wouldn't want to rethink the Reformation. I'm not sure that Piper can accept the fact the Calvin or Luther's understanding was incomplete and is in need to revision.

Wright spends a couple of pages responding to Piper footnote 5 on page 36 of The Future of Justification:
"5 N. T. Wright gives his understanding of the covenant and the law-court images of Israel’s future judgment and then says, “Learning to ‘see’ an event in terms of two great themes like these is part of learning how first-century Jews understood the world.” What Saint Paul Really Said, 33. This seems too sweeping. He gives the impression that there was a monolithic standpoint. But Wright does agree with the principle that the biblical context of the New Testament writer must confirm any interpretation suggested by external sources. Yet his esteem for the importance of the extra-biblical context seems to give it a remarkably controlling role for his interpretation of the New Testament. Within this context, the New Testament writers may build in “nuances and emphases.” He writes, “We can never, in other words, begin with the author’s use of a word; we must begin with the wider world he lived in, the world we meet in our lexicons, concordances, and other studies of how words were used in that world, and must then be alive to the possibility of a writer building in particular nuances and emphases of his or her own.” “The Shape of Justification.” The problem with that emphasis is that it obscures the facts (1) that “the author’s use of the word” is the most crucial evidence concerning its meaning and (2) that all other uses of the word are themselves other instances that are as vulnerable to misunderstanding as is the biblical use. There is no access to “how words were used in that world” other than particular uses like the one right there in the Bible."
Wright observes that "in the last analysis, I of course agree - that 'the final court of appeal is the context of the author's own arguement', I respond: Yes, absolutely: and that means taking Romans 3:21-4:25 seriously as a whole argument... it means taking Romans 9:30-10:13 seriously as a whole argument... it means, as well... taking Romans 2:17-3:8 seriously as part of a single train of thought" (32-33). [Wright's emphasis]

And then, Wright make the point that "Piper never deals with any of those great arguments, but contents himself with picking piecemeal at verses here and there. Almost anything can be proved that way" (33).

What is happening here is Wright is addressing a key issue in terms of how we read Scripture. Too many for too long have read the Bible in a piecemeal fashion. (I had thought we were past this stage - but I guess not). It is not enough to read verses here and there, but we need to see those verses within the context of the book and within the context of the rest of Scripture. At times that means we say with Peter:
"...our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" 2 Peter 3:15-16 [my emphasis]
Wright ends the chapter with a comment on how the New International Version [NIV] handles Romans 3:21-26. I'll leave Wright's comments and my oberservations on that until Wright gets to Romans in chapter 7.

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