20 April 2009

new perspective and openness: strange bedfellows?

Today I received my copy of Tom Wright's response to John Piper's critique on the Pauline view of justification. This is the very highly anticipated next-step in the ongoing debate of the topic, and proves to provide another (albeit more pointed) summary of Wright's exegesis and overall theology. Admittedly, since IVP is taking its time to release the US copy of this I took it upon myself to order the UK version (SPCK) so that I could get on with it. And I plan on reviewing it in more detail as the week goes on.

But for now I must offer a rather simple observation that I've made regarding the nature of Piper's criticism of Wright. [N.B., I happen to believe that Wright has it more correct than not, and that there are serious flaws in Piper's thinking and hermeneutic, both here and elsewhere.] In the introductory chapters the reader is brought up to speed regarding the nature of the debate, why it matters, and what is and is not being said by Wright. The book itself is a direct reply to Piper, though other critiques of the 'new perspective' find their way into the discussion. One of the issues which bothers Wright a great deal is Piper's insistence that we appeal to the writings of the Reformers, to which Wright believes happens at the expense of reading Scripture in its original context. Indeed, Piper seems to be willing to ignore first-century Jewish thought altogether for the sake of systematic development! Yet, Wright says it well: "The greatest honour we can pay the Reformers is not to treat them as infallible - they would be horrified at that - but to do as they did" (6).

It was at this point of the book that something struck me as particularly interesting: there are significant similarities between the 'neo-Reformed' (if that is an adequate term to describe this crowd, I stole it from Scot McKnight on the back of the book) in their critique of the new perspective as there is on their attacks of Open Theism. Seriously. Having known two of the more prominent Openness figures over the past ten years, I have seen firsthand how such 'critiques' can get out-of-hand and vicious, rather than constructive and kingdom-building. And the same moves which have been present in this debate, by the same opponents, using the same publishers, are being recycled here to protect their own take on tradition over anything else.

Taking the response to Sanders' The God Who Risks as an example . . . In this book, John Sanders seeks to give a biblical theology (which is a category often unrecognized or misunderstood by the 'neo-Reformers'), by placing texts in their original contexts which help to construct a faithful doctrine of God. There are some places where he is right; other places where he is wrong. But he does a solid job of navigating through the material, especially since he's been echoed by well recognized biblical scholars who are trying to accomplish the same thing (T. Fretheim, J. Goldingay). But some of the earliest (and ongoing) criticisms of him directly is that he is flying in the face of the Reformation tradition which has already told us what the doctrine of God is supposed to be.

Those of you who are keeping up with Piper-Wright should recognize this. For Piper and Ware are two of the most outspoken voices for the notion that the Reformation tradition is the trump card against Open Theism, instead of working within the realm of the biblical text. The result is the familiar ". . . debate, the 'arm-wrestling', the 'text-trading', the endless footnotes, the massive scholastic tradition of mutual references, refutations, restatements, and so on" (Wright, 66). Perhaps I'm confused, but what has happened to sola Scriptura?

When this is all boiled down, it should provide a significant blow to the academic credibility of this crowd - especially with the recycling of the rehashed arguments. I do not doubt for a moment that their hearts are sincere (though many of this camp have said otherwise about their opponents). But my grandmother's heart is sincere and she has no business offering a scholarly critique of Open Theism or NPP either. If we broaden our view and see what is happening here, we might just be at a turning point in the way we conduct our rhetoric - at least, in terms of those whom we will take seriously and those we won't.


Anonymous said...

You've nailed it. This dynamic is frustrating and extremely disheartening. Evangelicals have largely traded away their identity. We are supposed to be those who treasure, attend to, seek to understand, and then articulate the BIBLICAL TEXT above all else, always being willing to revise our doctrinal understanding in light of Scripture. But so many have just checked out into a doctrinal system (one which they don't often understand rightly and fully), thinking that THAT is the faithful thing to do. So that there are no ears to hear what Wright, Sanders, Olson, et al are actually saying. Sad.

Anyway, well said.

Tim Gombis

ZwCephas said...

My Grandma, too, was sincere God bless her soul - and once commented that St. Paul read the KJV! I have followed the Piper/Wright debate and am increasingly convinced that Wright hits the nail on the head - but you have put into words what has been a burr under my saddle regarding the Piper crowd: they really do believe that Reformation Tradition is infallible. So I now think Grandma missed it by a century or so: St. Paul did not read the KJV - he read Calvin! Thank you for helping to see where Grandma went wrong!

:mic said...

"- he read Calvin!"

That's funny.