I’m continuing my look at the New Perspectives on Paul, here looking at the first of the rejoinders. Piper angles his writing specifically as a response to N.T. (Tom) Wright. It was for that reason that I chose to read What St Paul Really Said and Paul: Fresh Perspectives before I read this. If you are considering picking up Piper’s book, I would heartily recommend that you read these first; otherwise you may get lost, although Piper does quote Wright quite extensively, but only on the points which Piper disagrees with.
A word needs to be said about the book’s structure & style. The main book is a little under 200 pages long, but tagged onto the end are six appendices. Piper fully admits that these appendices don’t directly relate to the argument of the book, but are little essays that give some more detail to his views on the theme of justification. Most evident in these, but also present in the rest of the book, is Piper’s inferior communication skills. While he criticises Wright for not always being clear (and I agree that Wright isn’t always clear in communicating his views), Piper has a habit of peppering his writing with Greek. Only, he rarely includes a transliteration, making it difficult to read for anyone who can’t easily read Greek. One wonders if this was done not for the purposes of making himself clearer, but for the purpose of making him look clever. Likewise, Piper uses the word ‘impute’ and its cognates a lot, but at times he contradicts himself over what he understands this to mean.
As the title suggests, the aspect of the New Perspective which is in contention is that of ‘justification by faith’. Wright’s contention is that justification is not that which ensures salvation, but is the “badge” by which those who are saved are identified. Here, I do find Piper more convincing than Wright, particularly with respect to the interpretation of the phrase ‘dikaiosune theou’ which is usually translated as “God’s righteousness” but which Wright takes as “God’s covenant faithfulness”.
Piper drops a vital clue as to some of the differences between his & Wright’s point of view when he says, “This British phrase, “putting the world to rights” means…” (emphasis added). It seems that there may be something lost in translation inside a common language. Piper then goes on to question how good news for the world can be a gospel for an individual, betraying a very particular Americanised sort of individualism. Of course, such a viewpoint would have only faintly recognisable to Paul.
This is by no means a response to the whole “New Perspectives” idea as espoused by Wright, Sanders, Dunn and others. This focuses on just one aspect of it. As such, I couldn’t help but think that Piper seems to have disagreed with Wright’s conclusions without first walking out the path that Wright has done himself. Indeed, Wright has stated that he is attempting to “think Paul’s thoughts”; the image that comes to my mind is of a child walking across a muddy field trying to step in their parent’s footsteps. Here indeed, the field is very muddy.
Much of the first part of the book focuses on an analogy that Wright used in What Saint Paul Really Said about a lawcourt. Although Wright only spends 7 pages on this (one of which is a diagram) out of 183 (4%), Piper’s critique of it covers just over 40 pages out of 225 (18%). In this particular respect, I find Wright’s account more compelling, as Piper seems more keen to stick to his own traditional understanding, rather than accept the possibility that theologians of generations past may have slightly misunderstood.
No one can doubt Piper’s earnestness or that he has taken great care in researching this book. Where a perceived misinterpretation of the bible has taken place, I do think it’s important to try to set things right, so I wouldn’t join with those who say Piper was being ungracious in writing this. In some points, I think his criticisms are valid, but not in all. As this was the first book of his I have read, I think he’s relied a bit too much on his other writings, though I said something similar for Paul: Fresh Perspectives.
After reading this, the next step in my self-education in the new perspectives will be to read Wright’s response to Piper entitled ‘Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision’. If my current reading goes to plan, I would expect for that review to ready sometime around late January or early February.