For those interested in Bible interpretation, and in particular the work of John Piper, I presented a paper on the topic at the 2010 ETS meeting where one of my goals was to pin down Piper’s approach to the biblical text and present it as a commendable method. In light of the recent posts and attention to method, here is an excerpt from that paper where I try to label how Piper reads the Bible (and from which his preaching and writing ministry flows).
Textual-theological is a helpful title for John Piper’s approach to the biblical text for two main reasons: 1) his approach is textual in that the text itself carries the prominent role in the exegetical task as opposed to an imported conceptual framework; and 2) his approach is theological in that the interpretation of the text is achieved by theological reflection upon the exegesis of the text within the scope of the canon. This approach is most vividly seen in the justification debate, or more specifically, how he defines the “righteousness of God” in Paul.
It Is Textual
One does not have to look far in Piper’s Future of Justification to see his concern about the biblical-theological approach of Wright. He writes about the danger of the “biblical-theological” paradigm when it works to “silence the particularity of a text’s meaning.” Piper writes:
It is not just ‘dogmatic categories’ that function this way. So do ruling paradigms in ‘biblical theology.’ What is happening in Romans 3:24-26 is that ‘the righteousness of God,” understood broadly from the Old Testament and Jewish literature as God’s ‘salvific activity,’ is exerting more influence than that particularities of the text.
Piper insists that the text itself must have the most prominent role in the way it is read. The authority of the biblical text and the notion that interpreters not impose their dogmatic categories is of general consensus by evangelical interpreters. Piper goes on to stress that biblical-theological categories can have the same ill-imposed impressions as systematic and historical categories. He writes, “Neither systematic nor biblical theology must distort exegesis. But both can.”
We can learn about Piper’s approach to the biblical text by noting his concern for Wright’s approach. He writes, “One of the impressions one gets in reading N. T. Wright is that large conceptual frameworks are brought to the text of the New Testament from outside and are providing a lens through which the meaning is seen.” Piper is concerned with this biblical-theological paradigm when he writes that “it bears all the marks of a widespread scholarly paradigm that exerts a controlling effect on the exegesis of texts that do not clearly support it.”
In a similar way, David Kelsey critiques what he calls “biblical concept theology” in his publication The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (1975). Among the problems that Kelsey points out is that such an approach leaves the Bible to be “tacitly treated as a system of technical concepts.” He explains,
In ordinary discourse, surely a word does not have one structure of systematically interrelated senses that goes with the word in every context of use. Rather, the meaning of a word used in ordinary talk is learned by attending to the way it is used in some particular context.
Accessing an outside lens in order to see through a “window of a worldview other than our own” requires the work of historical investigation that can easily become a subtle undercurrent pulling the interpreter away of the biblical text itself. This kind of work, as David Yeago writes, “is propaedeutic to the real theological-exegetical task.” Moreover, dependence upon this outside work for exegesis is cumbersome and distracting for the reader to hear the word of the Lord.
Now we must go beyond considering Piper’s approach by negation and see it on display within the justification debate, most clearly in how he defines the “righteousness of God.” In the effort to be truest to the Apostle Paul and the canonical testimony, Piper considers the crucial question to be what inclines God to act in faithfulness to his covenant promises. Piper goes deeper and broader than the text in asking this question, yet such probing is not mere speculative theologizing. He roots the questioning in the exegesis of the text. He writes:
Paul’s use of the righteousness language in Romans begs for this question to be asked. The dikai-word group is used over seventy times in Romans. Paul’s profound argument in answer to the question “Is there injustice [adikia] on God’s part?” (Rom 9:14) pushes us deeper into God beneath and before the covenant. And the development of his argument in Romans 1-3 regarding man’s “unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18) apart from the covenant presses us behind the covenant for the ultimate meaning of righteousness as Paul conceived of it.
In Justification of God (1983) Piper gives a thorough explanation of important texts in Romans to understand what Paul means by “righteousness of God.” By looking closely at Romans 3:1-8, Piper concludes:
. . . for Paul God’s righteousness is neither a strict distributive justice nor a merely saving activity. It is more fundamental to God’s nature than either of these and thus embraces mercy and judgment. It is God’s inclination always to act so that everything abounds to his glory.
The inclination in God to act according to his glory is integral to Piper’s understanding of what Paul means. The righteousness of God is “his unswerving commitment to preserve and display the glory of his name.” Wright accuses Piper of an idiosyncratic definition that ignores the “huge mass of scholarly literature.” He writes, “Piper’s attempt to show that there must be a ‘righteousness’ behind God’s ‘covenant faithfulness’ is simply unconvincing.” Yet, Piper’s conclusion of the meaning of “righteousness” comes through the careful, transparent work of exegesis that is attentive to the context of the canon. Conceptual paradigms are not totally disregarded, but the most pertinent evidence for meaning is found within and governed by the text itself.
It Is Theological . . .
Piper’s commitment to the text leverages the theological element of his approach. The text is given the most prominent attention and his theological reflection is a pressing deeper into the determinant, exegetically rendered meaning of the text. Piper is not content to walk away from the text with a superficial meaning. He is leery of the “biblical concept theology” approach for doing just that. Piper is concerned that Wright’s definition of the righteousness of God does not go deep enough. He writes,
… Wright’s definition of the righteousness of God does not go to the heart of the matter, but stays at the level of what divine righteousness does rather than what it is. He defines God’s righteousness by saying that it keeps covenant, judges impartially, deals properly with sin, and advocates for the helpless. None of those is what righteousness is, but they are some of the things righteousness does. This limited way of treating God’s righteousness distorts Wright’s reading of Paul.
Piper believes that exegesis pushes the interpreter “deeper into God beneath and before the covenant.” A simple definition of righteousness is inadequate. He explains, “It is not very satisfying simply to say that God’s righteousness is his commitment to do what is right, because it leaves the term “right” undefined.” Now, it is specifically at this point that Piper presses deeper with the theological element of his approach. To define what is “right,” he explains:
The answer is that there is no book of law or rules that God consults to know what is right. He wrote the book. What we find therefore in the Old Testament and in Paul is that God defines ‘right’ in terms of himself. There is no other standard to consult than his own infinitely worthy being. Thus, what is right, most ultimately, is what upholds the value and honor of God—what esteems and honors God’s glory… There is something far deeper in God than covenant faithfulness.
The pitch has been delivered and Piper’s way of throwing exposes his distinction from Wright. Piper’s theological reflection is rooted in his exegesis and forces interpretive accountability to the aim of the text. Piper’s approach attends to “what the text actually says” and ends at the truth that is being rendered by God and about God in that text.
Vanhoozer’s Help and How Piper’s Approach Fits
In his book, “Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” Daniel Treier mentions Kevin Vanhoozer in a short survey of authors who contributed to the beginnings of theological interpretation in the 1990s. Vanhoozer describes what the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) is and is not in his essay, “What is the Theological Interpretation of the Bible?” He gives three characteristics for what is TIS and as the second characteristic he writes, “The theological interpretation of the Bible is characterized by a governing interest in God, the word and works of God, and by a governing intention to engage what we might call ‘theological criticism’”.
Considering Vanhoozer’s explanation of TIS, I think Piper’s textual-theological approach best corresponds to this characteristic of theological criticism. In particular, Piper’s approach corresponds to two aspects of theological criticism related to the use of critical tools and to the ultimate theological goal of reading.
The Use of Critical Tools
One should not abandon scholarly tools and approaches in order to interpret the Bible theologically. One the contrary, modern and postmodern tools and methods may be usefully employed in theological interpretation to the extent that they are oriented to illuming the text rather than something that lay “behind” it (e.g., what actually happened) or “before” it (e.g., the ideological concerns of an interpretative community).
Piper and Wright both use grammatical-historical tools and methods, however Piper’s textual-theological approach holds the critical tools to “have a ministerial, not magisterial, function in biblical interpretation.” While these tools help Piper trace Paul’s argument in Romans, their role is terminated on the text and its meaning. Piper’s use of critical tools is submitted to the text whereas Wright’s tools carry an imposing weight that constrains the text within an imported concept.
The Ultimate Goal of Reading
Vanhoozer explains that theological criticism is primarily concerned with the ultimate aim in reading. He writes, “A properly theological criticism will therefore seek to do justice to the priority of the living and active triune God.” The theological goal of reading the biblical text does not replace concern for determinant meaning and the original audience; instead it seeks to recover the confessional interest of the original community. Vanhoozer continues, “On this view, biblical interpretation takes the form of a confession or acknowledgement of the work and word of God in an through Scripture.”
This flavor of theological criticism is apparent in Piper’s theological insistence to press beyond covenant faithfulness to understand the righteousness of God. Piper writes that the crucial question in defining the righteousness of God is to ask what it is in God that inclines him to act in love and faithfulness and goodness. Piper asks questions about the text with an aim towards uncovering a confessional theology echoed throughout the canon. It is theological criticism that leads Piper to be concerned about the deepest allegiance of God, which is not the covenant but God’s unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name.
Much more could, and should, be said. The implications of Piper’s alignment with Vanhoozer’s explanation of TIS and more specifically theological criticism are yet to be explored. One important implication of these approaches to the biblical text is the impact they have upon the Church’s reading. I think that Piper’s approach prevails by the prominence it gives to the text. The accessibility of his textual-theological approach seems to do better in drawing the people of God into communicative action for the sake of communion. If the Church will be enabled to “hear (understand) and do (perform) the Word in and for the present” then it must be by an approach to the text that is available to strangers of the academic guild.
 Perhaps the best description for Piper’s approach would be “textual-canonical theological” as opposed to the “biblical-conceptual theological” approach of Wright. However, to avoid cumbersome nuances, I will stick with “textual-theological” and explain my use. The term “textual-theological” is used elsewhere.
See Gail R. O’Day and David L. Petersen, eds., Theological Bible Commentary, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), viii. It is described: “Rather than being devoted to scholarly reconstructions of biblical texts, or even to theological themes (such as covenant, creation, etc.), or concerned with an alleged theological centre to the canon, the commentary claims to be ‘textual theological relfection, contingent on fully formed biblical books’” (viii).
Greg Allision also uses the phrase “textual-theological” (T-TIS) and defines it: “Foremost in T-TIS is the conviction that ‘appropriate interpretation of Scripture can only be guided by a correcting understanding of what Scripture is, as defined by the doctrine of Scripture.’” Greg R. Allison, “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: An Introduction and Preliminary Evaluation,” SBJT 14.2 (2010): 28-36.
 John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness?, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 74.
 John Piper, Future of Justification, 33.
 Ibid., 38.
 Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ, 70.
 Kelsey analyzed a paper by a contemporary scholar and critiqued how he related Old Testament concepts to New Testament concepts. He writes, “Bartsch seems to assume that if one concept, p (say, the New Testament concept “peace”) has a historical relation to concept s (say, the Old Testament concept “shalom”), then p always and everywhere in the Bible includes the full meaning of s.” David Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 24.
 Ibid., 27. Kelsey continues, “Bartsch proceeds as though a concept, biblical or otherwise, were (a) a kind of container that lugs the selfsame meaning-content into every context, and (b) a kind of onion that accumulates layers of meaning from its several contexts of use in the past, interrelates them systematically, and thereafter bears them in all contexts whatsoever, so that all uses of the concept are present when any one is explicitly used” (27).
 David Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis,” The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Stephen E. Fowl, (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 88.
 Piper, The Future of Justification, 63.
 John Piper, Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983). Romans 3:1-8 and Romans 3:25-26 are passages that are meticulously examined (123-147).
 Ibid., 133. To be clear, Wright is not making the mistake of reducing God’s righteousness to punitive judgment or saving activity. He goes deeper than those activities, but still not deep enough. Wright writes, “God’s righteousness is that quality or attribute because of which he saved his people. His ‘act of righteousness’ are thus the acts he performs as outworkings or demonstrations of his covenant faithfulness” (Wright, Justification, 64). But the reader must ask what it is of God’s nature that makes covenant faithfulness a reality.
 Piper, Justification of God, 103.
 Wright, Justification, 64.
 Ibid., 65.
 Piper’s attention to concepts is evidenced in the booklet entitled Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Meaning of Scriptural Texts (Minneapolis: Desiring God, 1999). This booklet is the best resource from Piper that details his hermeneutics. He writes, “God has spoken to us in written, human languages. We cannot grasp the meaning of language unless we understand the language conventions which a Biblical author employed. Therefore, we must make every effort to deal with the Bible grammatically (and historically since an author’s specific use of language is determined by his situation in history)” (14). See also his thorough investigation on the righteousness of God in the Old Testament in Justification of God, pp. 103-122.
 “Biblical concept theology” is used synonymously to “biblical-theology.”
 John Piper, The Future of Justification, 62.
 Ibid., 63.
 Ibid., 64-65. Piper goes on to cite Isaiah 48:9-11; 43:25; Ps. 79:9; Ezek. 36 20-23. He writes, “In these contexts, the motivation for God’s saving action is something deeper than covenant faithfulness. It is God’s faithfulness—his unwavering commitment—to act for the value of his glory” (65).
 Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 62.
 Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 11.
 In my opinion, Vanhoozer’s explanation, backed by his other work on Scripture, stands as the most evangelical thread of TIS. See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998); First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002); The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005).
 Kevin Vanhoozer, “What is Theological Interpretation of the Bible?,” Theological Interpretation of the New Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey, (eds., Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Craig Bartholomew, and N.T. Wright; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 19.
 Vanhoozer, “What is Theological Interpretation of the Bible?,” 20.
 Concerning Wright’s understanding of 4QMMT, Piper writes: “This understanding of first-century Judaism is an integral part of Wright’s system. If it were to prove inaccurate, there would need to be a pervasive rethinking of many things because of how many aspects of the system are tied to this one.” (Piper, Future of Justification, 141).
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 35.
 Ibid., 456. Vanhoozer considers this to be the vocation of the pastor/director.