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Piper begins the substance of his critique against Wright by arguing that historical research does not shine as much light on a biblical text as we might expect. Piper points out possible distortions that may creep up in systematic or biblical theology. He gives an example: seeing eschatology as the driving framework of the New Testament can distort the biblical witness (33). (I am confused by his footnote, implicating George Ladd’s The Presence of the Future. I am not sure whether or not Piper is quoting Ladd favorably or if he is critiquing Ladd for overemphasizing eschatology.)

Piper sees N.T. Wright’s theology as biblical theology, not systematic. By biblical theology, he means this:

“Biblical theology aims to read the authors of Scripture along the trajectory of redemptive history in light of the authors’ own categories that are shaped by the historical milieu in which they lived.” (34)

Piper clearly sees the usefulness in pursuing the formulation of a biblical theology. But he believes that some cautions are in line.

First off, Piper says that interpreting Scripture in light of the first century is not always illuminating. A fascination with historical research can lead to wrong ideas (34).

How? First, he believes that people can misunderstand the historical sources. In other words, why should scholars be more sure of their interpretations of first-century works than they are of their study of the New Testament texts themselves?

Piper makes a good point here, but I am afraid that under closer inspection, it doesn’t hold up. There is no interpretation, indeed no translation at all without historical study of the first century! It is possible that we can misunderstand the sources, that we can interpret other historical works incorrectly, and that we can mistranslate the texts based on faulty lexicons… but that is a risk that we must, indeed we are forced to take! There can be no interpretation or translation at all without such historical research.

Piper’s warning should be heeded. Let us not overestimate our ability to understand the time period.

But I fear that Piper’s warning may lead some of his followers to disregard the historical question altogether. Downgrading research in historical Jesus studies (which Piper does in the preface to What Jesus Demands from the World), downplaying the importance (even necessity) of historical research in understanding the biblical text, and disregarding historical findings that do not align with our neatly-defined categories of systematic theology will bring us again to the doorstep of old Bultmann-styled liberalism. Piper would never go this far, of course, but I can see that cliff not too far in the distance.

Piper also warns us against assuming agreement with a source when in fact there is none (35-36). Words can be used in different ways to different people (he uses the word “evangelical” as an example). We shouldn’t assume that the way a word is used in one source is the way it is used in Scripture. Again, this is a good warning. We shouldn’t always assume that definitions line up.

At the same time though, employing this hermeneutic of suspicion could wind up paralyzing biblical scholars. Ironically, Piper thinks Wright’s theology will bog down pastors in a swamp of perplexity. I believe Piper’s hermeneutical suspicion will paralyze Greek scholars and English translators the same way.

How are we to know what any of the words of the Greek New Testament mean without studying them in relation to the language used at the time and in other writings? Piper is right that we shouldn’t be overconfident in our interpretation of words in other sources. But he fails to mention that we can’t properly translate the New Testament without such research.

The end of the chapter features Piper’s complaint that N.T. Wright’s “fresh” and “new” perspectives on ancient Bible texts represent a trend in our current culture. ”Freshness” is not always the result of faithful exegesis. He also believes Wright fails to express “exuberant” gratitude for the insights of previous generations of expositors.

“To be sure, we need preachers who (1) give themselves to the text and (2) allow themselves to be taken wherever it truly leads. But when Wright continues the sentence by saying we need pastors who ‘think new thoughts’ and ‘dare to try them out,’ he implies that this will be the result of allegiance to the text. In fact, allegiance to the text may as often awaken joyful gratitude and worship over and confirmation of insights that have been seen clearly and cherished for centuries (37).”

I agree with Piper 100% here. We can expect a “fresh” word from the Lord upon studying the text, but that fresh word may (and usually will) be a word that was fresh to someone in generations past as well.

I also believe that Wright would agree with Piper on this subject. Consider Wright’s allegiance to traditional Church teaching on sexual morality and the historic doctrines of the faith. His testimony does not reveal a man who is carried to and fro by the winds of the latest fads in scholarship.

Nevertheless, Piper’s warning should be heeded. We should not seek “freshness” and “novelty” and “innovation” for the sake of it. This chapter ends with a foretaste of future critique (38). Piper sees that Wright is bringing large conceptual frameworks to his reading of the New Testament. That is true. He also sees that Wright’s frameworks might not always be accurate and thus distort the texts rather than illuminate it.

I agree with Piper’s critique at this point. While reading Wright, I have always felt that he approaches the text with large frameworks – such as “exile and return” – into which he then seeks to fit all the biblical data. (But it should be mentioned that we all come to the biblical text with large conceptual frameworks. More on that later…)

The next chapter sets up one of those frameworks. We will take a look at that chapter next…

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog

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0 thoughts on “Future of Justification 4: Historical Research”

  1. Tom Kushman says:

    Trevin… your blogs on Piper’s Book are very helpful and insightful too. Thanx for all so far… please keep them coming! I wish Piper would have given some more detailed examples exactly where he thinks Wright is misunderstanding specific historical sources. IMHO, Piper only gets about half way there in making his own case in this chapter. Tom Kushman, Black Hills of South Dakota

  2. Brian says:

    It’s interesting that your blog commentaries of the Piper/Wright views are intertwined with your commentaries on the Prodigal Son. In the world of systematic theology, the expectation is that biblical truths come to us in neat, tidy packages. It’s as if we should expect that the Bible should have come with tabs so that we could look up baptism under the “B” tab, and justification under the “J” tab. Systematic theology can come across as sterile, overlooking some of the mystery of our faith. The prodigal son story introduces a familial connection to God, our Father, in great contrast to justification being a strictly “judicial decree.” While I haven’t read Piper’s book, I recognize in Wright’s work an embracing of the familial, covenental connection we receive as members of the body of Christ. Piper surely would not deny such, but Wright has tapped into another level of biblical understanding that proves to be a burr under the saddle of the dyed in the wool systematic guys who want biblical understanding compartmentalized into tidy, air-tight compartments.

  3. Brannon says:

    I am thoroughly enjoying your blogging through Piper’s new book. I look forward every day to reading it.

  4. trevinwax says:

    I’m glad you guys are enjoying the series. It’s a good book and it deserves some commentary.

    I don’t think Piper believes that justification is a strictly judicial decree. I’ve heard him on this subject and he seems well-balanced in his view. There are two extremes we need to avoid: the one that downplays the judicial aspect and the one that concentrates only on the judicial part.

  5. Trevor,

    Thanks for blogging on this topic. It seems that you overstated Piper’s perspective on the importance and use of historical research in Biblical studies. After I read this post, I can’t help myself, but to conclude that you did not read Piper quite well in this particular chapter. Second, you seem to imply that, Piper does not value historical data in studying Scriptures. Third, he does not take into account the historical milieu in which the Bible was written, especially the NT documents.
    Piper is a former NT professor, having taught in the discipline for many years. I am quite sure he is familiar with historical backgrounds and resources when it comes to understanding and interpreting the Bible.
    (Have you read The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 ?)


  6. trevinwax says:


    Thanks for your comment. I hope that I have fairly represented Piper, as it has been my goal to fairly represent both him and Wright.

    I know that Piper is to be commended in much of what he writes. I also know that he believes strongly in the value of historical research, only that in this case, I believe his hermeneutic of suspicion could serve as a muzzle for any serious scholar of history who might suggest we look at the biblical text from a different angle.

    Piper’s concerns with regards to historical research are commendable. My fear is that if the concerns are always at the forefront, there will be no historical research that can be done.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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