Wright describes a scene where we are attempting to explain to a man who “by some accident of education” had never heard that the earth revolved and rotated. You expalin the solar system and planetary motion with props and passion over a glass of wine. The next morning you wake up to the other man’s persistent knock. He takes you to a hilltop over looking the ocean. He returns to the topic of the previous night and then the great evidence arises in the east and he turns and says, “see I told you. There it is before our eyes. Do not let all these new ideas confuse you when the fact is so clear and simple and is right there plain for all to see.” Confident that he is the defender of the truth against silly sophistication, he looks at you with a look of almost pity.
How N. T. Wright Flanks Piper on the Right
What is it in the self-satisfied traditionalist that stands in the way of learning? The first few chapters in Wright’s justification attempt to convince the traditionalist to consider that maybe there exist strongholds that are impeding their ability to see scriptures clearly. If we can all agree on a few hermeneutical principles, maybe some progress in the dialogue can be made. So here are the principles as I see them that Wright suggests:
We must look at everything Paul says. If our system cannot explain or account for some passages, then we must be open to a new perspective which can actually account for the entire system of Pauline thought. This suggestion is fundamentally conservative in that this principle is appealing to scripture. A good understanding of scripture must be able to assist in understanding other scriptures.
A sub set of this principle would be that in order to understand a passage we need to be able to understand the entire argument of the passage and how that passage fits in a larger argument.
As an illustration of this point, Wright uses the analogy of building a puzzle using all the puzzle pieces. If we refuse to use all the puzzle pieces and then force ourselves to make a picture out of the puzzle pieces remaining, we will not get a good picture or a clear understanding of the intended scene. So too, if we do not take every passage into account, we will not be able to understand the entire picture of Pauline thought nor will we have much success or assurance that we understand what little bits we do think we have pieced together.
A second principle is that it is important to look to scriptures and the world of scriptures as opposed to tradition and the world of the 16th century and the thought patterns of the 16th-17th centuries as the authority in scripture interpretation. This point is so obvious and humorous at the same time. Wright is clearly flanking Piper on the right. Is it conservative to point the believers to the 1st century or the 16th? To scripture or tradition? Should we illuminate Paul with the world of Paul or the world of Calvin and Luther?
A great example of this principle is Luther’s own appeal to scripture and the world of scripture to make one of the key revelations of the reformation. Luther appealed to 1st century usage of the word metanoia. Luther insisted that a more accurate translation of Pauline though would be “to repent” and not “to do penance”. On what basis could Luther make this argument but to go back to scripture and the use of such word elsewhere in the first century. Wright is out reforming the reformed purists by using examples of how the reformers did exactly what he is doing, (i.e. looking to scriptures as the final authority as against our traditions.
A last example of this is to make the distinction between the questions we are attempting to answer via the text and the questions Paul was trying to answer via his text. ewvery generation has its controversies and every generations theologies are an attempt to answer these controversies. But isn’t it more important to understand what Paul problems Paul was trying to solve when he wrote the text. The aim is to avoid eisegesis and get back to exegesis.
If we are honest, each of Wright’s principles are an appeal to true scriptural conservatism as opposed to a conservatism that attempts to conserve tradition. Indeed, N. T. Wright is flanking John Piper on the right.