Volume 15, Issue 5: Thema
A Pauline Take on the New Perspective
This issue is intended to accomplish two modest goals. The first of these is the more modest of the two, and it is simply to record my thoughts on what has come to be called the New Perspective on Paul. Stating those thoughts for the record has become increasingly important because in some conservative Presbyterian circles, the New Perspective has become controversial, and I somehow got dragged into it. Not surprisingly, as always, with the rising heat of that controversy there has been a corresponding diminution of light. Once dust starts getting thrown in the air, we usually learn very little except that Diana of the Ephesians is great. It may be a vain hope, but I would like set down in written form a brief but thorough account of what I actually think about the New Perspective.
This is important because those who have accused me thus far have not exhibited too great a concern for what theologians of another era used to call
the truth. In other words, if the facts in this case had had the small pox, many accusers would be quite free from any fear of contagion. In some parts of the Reformed world, it is thought that the scriptural requirement to have two or three witnesses is satisfied simply by hitting the send key twice.
The second goal is to interact with some of the central themes of the New Perspective on a popular level. Because this is no longer a question of scholars debating among themselves, but is rather a very practical question that is roiling congregations, presbyteries, and schools, perhaps this interaction with the material will provide practical guidance for some in the midst of their controversies.
For those interested, a good introduction and summary of some of the central concerns of the New Perspective can be found in a small booklet entitled The New Perspective on Paul. Written by the Rev. Dr. Michael Thompson at Cambridge, the booklet is distributed in the United States by Reformation and Revival Ministries.1 The writer is clearly in sympathy with the New Perspective, but also does good work in pointing out some of the places where the New Perspective could be responsibly challenged from the text of Scripture.
In this response of mine, I am creating my outline from key comments made in Thompson’s booklet. I have rearranged their order according to my own predelictions and purposes, but I am nevertheless interacting with six basic concerns about the so-called “Old Perspective” as raised by someone clearly sympathetic to the New Perspective. Both James Dunn and N.T. Wright are key figures in this debate and controversy, and both of them reviewed the manuscript of Thompson’s booklet sympathetically. If forced to deal with a summary of a giant subject in the space of a short article, this seems to me to be a fair way of proceeding.
But fair or not, some might say that it is still not very scholarly to interact with a distillation of such a massive corpus of work in this way, but for that I make no apology at all. N.T. Wright can write faster than I can read, and if we adopted the total-tonnage standard, and if he kept his pace up, we would never get anything done. At the same time, I will refer to the work of Wright, Dunn, and Sanders, including them where they fit in with the themes outlined by Thompson.
The six concerns with the Old Perspective are listed below. Over against the Old Perspective, the New Perspective wants to deny the following:
1. that justification by faith was a new revelation;
2. that faith replaced works;
3. that law stands in opposition to grace;
4. that Paul’s focus was on the individual’s relationship to God;
5. that Judaism was a religion of merit;
6. that Judaism did not resolve Paul’s burden of guilt.
Points of Agreement
In line with the New Perspective, I also deny the first three points as stated above. But this is simply because I hold to the historic Reformed faith, over against contemporary dispensationalism or historic Lutheranism. Does this make Calvin or Turretin advocates of the New Perspective also?
This problem of anachronistic agreement reveals that a good part of this controversy is simply the resurgence of an old denominational debate. The picture is complicated yet further because many in the amillennial Reformed tradition have been influenced (and more than a little) by Lutheranism. And many conservative southern Presbyterians have been influenced by the same revivalist mentality that gave us fundamentalist and baptistic dispensationalism. This means that a good portion of the contemporary Reformed world challenges the New Perspective for denying these first three points. But this, I want to argue, is the result of Reformed writers drifting away from their own historic confessionalism, and trading it in for something else.
But to the extent the New Perspective has simply got the fantods about Lutheranism, there ought to be no controversy within the Reformed world. Our Reformed forefathers were not Lutherans for a reason. But the issue is made even more complex because some of the reasons the New Perspective denies the last three points above extend to some classical Reformed formulations of the gospel, which we will consider in the second half of this article. And further, some of the confusions resident in the New Perspective critique of the last three points will also spill over into their discussion of the first three. So historic Reformed thought denies the first three points, just like the New Perspective does, but the language of denial is sometimes markedly different. And the historic Reformed position differs significantly from the New Perspective on the last three points.
Before tackling the first three of our six issues here, it is important to make an important distinction. Despite the fact that the Reformed are not Lutherans, the natural tendency among the Reformed has still been to grant a certain pride of place to the Lutherans in the history of the Reformation. After all, as we all know, Luther started the Reformation when he nailed the 95 theses to the cathedral door at Wittenberg, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to him for that if for nothing else. Now as a matter of gratitude for the grace of God that was with Luther, this is most fitting. Luther is one of the truly great figures in the history of the Church. But as a matter of historical accuracy, we really do need to acknowledge some additional complicating factors.
Instead of thinking of the Reformation as an avalanche caused by Luther, Luther being the one who dislodged the first rock, it might be more helpful to think of the Reformation as a huge pot coming to a boil, and Luther being one of the first bubbles to break the surface. But the whole pot was coming to a boil already, and Zwingli was preaching reformational truth shortly before Luther was. And of course, Zwingli had his own insights and confusions alongside each other, just as Luther did—although it must be said that Luther lived on a much grander scale.
But even if we were to grant a chronological primacy to the Lutheran reformation, or even a primacy of honor, this is not the same thing as granting a doctrinal primacy. We ought not to make the mistake of thinking that the Lutheran formulations on justification by faith (for example) are in some sense the primitive meaning of that doctrine. Our concern should be, in the first place, to understand the teaching of the Bible. That is the primitive meaning of the doctrine. By this I mean the teaching of Genesis about the justification of Abraham, and not just the later harmonious teaching about this thousands of years after in the book of Romans. The first justified sinner to die in faith and go to God was Abel at the hand of his brother. And the history of justification by faith alone needs to put less emphasis on Wittenberg, and more on Ur of the Chaldees.
Justification by Faith a New Revelation?
That said, this leads into our discussion of the first point of agreement between the historic Reformed faith and the New Perspective. Justification by faith is in no way a new revelation that finally arrived in our midst at the time of the New Testament.
While this point is correct, there are two issues here that get entangled. Thompson observes, rightly , that “a basic premise of Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans is that justification by faith is not something new, but was true for Abraham” (Gal. 3:6-9; Rom. 4).2 But who is Thompson arguing with? Earlier he states, “At the risk of caricature and oversimplification, we can summarize some key points of the ‘old’ (primarily ‘Lutheran’) perspective as follows . . .”3` But even here it would have been nice to cite some Lutherans who were maintaining, for example, that Abraham was not justified by faith. I believe at this point the criticism of the Lutheran position, as Thompson anticipated, is something of a caricature. But if the criticism is then extended to another form of the “old” perspective, that of the Reformed, then it is not oversimplified, but rather simply false. One of the distinctive features of the historic Reformed faith has been its insistence of just this point.
Secondly, even in making the correct point that Paul argues that faith is the biblical instrument of justification, and not just the New Testament instrument of justification, important categories are confused. Thompson says, for example,
If the essence of Paul’s way of relating to God changed, what does this say about the nature and value of Old Testament faith? Have there been two ways of salvation? This issue will be treated in greater depth in a subsequent section, but note the significant confusion here. There is a difference between Paul as an individual representing a particular erroneous understanding of the Old Testament, and the Old Testament itself. Paul was a Jew, but this does not mean that he was a faithful Jew, rightly understanding the Old Testament.
The issue here is whether the unconverted Paul was a good representative of that Old Testament faith. Paul tells us that he had been a blasphemer, persecutor, and an insolent man (1 Tim. 1:13). He was therefore not one to be trusted in a spiritual exegesis of the Scriptures. The word rendered injurious in the AV could be rendered as insolent —the word is hubristes. Paul was full of overweening contempt for others, and he was therefore not a reliable guide for Old Testament studies.
So to answer Thompson’s question, what does it say about the nature and value of Old Testament faith if the essence of Paul’s way of relating to God changed? It says nothing . Paul had been an evil man, and the law was holy, righteous, and good. Because Paul was a covenant member, his wickedness meant that he was a hypocrite, not a pagan, but he was wicked nonetheless. He consistently misrepresented the Old Testament until he repented of his sin and began teaching the true meaning of the Old Testament.
But returning to the substance of Thompson’s point, it is fully orthodox in the Reformed sense to maintain that the just in the Old Testament shall live by faith and that the just in the New Testament shall live by faith. From the beginning, the Reformed faith has insisted upon this. The continuity of the covenants was a cornerstone in the argument for infant baptism, over against the anabaptists, for example. Calvin, in arguing against them, says this about the Jews of the Old Testament:
For they [the anabaptists] depict the Jews to us as so carnal that they are more like beasts than men. A covenant with them would not go beyond the temporal life, and the promises given them would rest in present and physical benefits. If this doctrine should obtain, what would remain save that the Jewish nation was satiated for a time with God’s benefits (as men fatten a herd of swine in a sty), only to perish in eternal destruction?4
Men who have come to God in truth have always come to Him in the same way, by grace through faith, lest any should boast. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews alone settles this question. The gallery of saints presented there throughout the course of the Old Testament (and even the Apocrypha) were characterized by their faith working through love. This has always been the way that God saves.
Faith Replacing Works?
The second issue concerns the relationship of faith and works. Here is Thompson below.
The separation of belief and action, of faith and works is alien to the teaching of Jesus . . . To drive a wedge between belief and action is to encourage self-deception, cheap grace, and the kind of thin pious veneer that James rightly rejects (James 2:14-26). That does not mean that salvation is earned by what we do; it is simply to affirm the biblical truth that the fruit we bear reflects who we really are and what we really believe.5
This is of course correct and fully orthodox. The only problem with it is the implication (by omission) that this somehow has not been the position of the Reformed faith for centuries. There is absolutely nothing new about this perspective.
For just one example, consider this observation on faith from the early Puritan William Ames (1576-1633).
[Faith] is an act of choice, an act of the whole man—which is by no means a mere act of the intellect. John 6:35, He who comes to me . . . he who believes in me. Since faith is the first act of our life whereby we live to God in Christ, it must consist of union with God, which a mere assent to the truth concerning God cannot effect.6
The desire to break apart faith and works (as opposed to distinguishing them) is fundamentally wrong-headed. What is a faith that has no relation to deeds? James tells us that as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead. This means a separation of the two cannot be accomplished without a murder. I can distinguish my body and soul, fairly easily. But if I managed to separate them, the folks standing around would call 911 because they would have an aspiring carcass on their hands.
Because of confusion at this point, some moderns who call themselves Reformed have actually started insisting that sola fide is solus assensus. But s olus assensus is the kind of faith that men can share with demons. A man can nod his head to orthodox propositions all the way to hell. This particular confusion has consistently been denied by orthodox Reformed theologians from the beginning. Following Peter Lombard, the orthodox Reformed have said that the fide of sola fide has three components, which are assensus (assent), notitia (knowledge), and fiducia (trust).7
The idea that a man could somehow be saved by
raw faith is of course contrary to James; but, more germaine to this discussion of historical theology, it is contrary to the historic Reformed position. We say sola fide. But what kind of faith is being talked about in the phrase sola fide? It is an assenting, knowledgeable, and trusting faith. Another way of putting this is that we are justified by a living faith, an obedient faith. Muller again, summarizing the position of the orthodox Reformed:
Saving faith, therefore, cannot be merely intellectual; it must also be volitional.8 So then, how is the insistence that
no wedge between faith and action be tolerated now to be thought of as one of the distinguishing marks of a New Perspective?
For the Scripture teaches that Christ has been made for us not only righteousness but also sanctification. Hence, we cannot receive through faith his righteousness without embracing at the same time that sanctification, but the Lord in one same alliance, which he has made with us in Christ, promises that he will be propitious toward our iniquities and will write his Law in our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10; 10:16).9
All this is finely nuanced. But in the rough and tumble of theological debate (where the antinomians always fight dirty), it often becomes necessary for the orthodox to attack things that are good in themselves, but which have been corrupted by the lawless of heart. This is how Jeremiah attacks the Temple, Paul attacks the Law, Isaiah attacks solemn assemblies, and so on. And in this sense orthodox Reformed teachers can attack
faith alone. Not all who are in the solas are of the solas.
Suppose I were to deny that everlasting salvation were the reward of faith alone. I have abandoned the Reformed faith, right? I have ditched the lovely bride of Calvinism for some heretical hoochy-mama, right? No, actually I would be simply using words similar to what we can find in Calvin’s Institutes.
For I do not accept the distinction made by learned and otherwise godly men that good works deserve the graces that are conferred upon us in this life, while everlasting salvation is the reward of faith alone. For the Lord almost always lodges in heaven the reward of toil and the crown of battle. On the other hand, so to attribute to the merit of works the fact that we are showered with grace upon grace as to take it away from grace is contrary to the teaching of Scripture.10
Is eternal salvation, Calvin asks, the reward of faith alone? Well, no, he appears to say. But since we all know that Calvin can’t be denying sola fide, we hunt through the surrounding context in order to place this kind of language in its proper context. This is quite right, and we ought to extend this same courtesy to other people as well. In any nuanced theological system, it is easy to find phrases that collide with simplistic Sunday School truths. But in this case, the tensions are resolved.
The Reformed hermeneutic discussed works in the context of justification because the covenant had two parts. Justification was the first blessing of the covenant while the second was the law of love engendered by the Holy Spirit. Faith was the condition of the first part of the covenant, and love or obedience was the condition of the second part. For Luther, grace and law were opposed. For the Reformed, the grace of the Holy Spirit resulted in the gift of love which was seen as the completion of all the law. For Luther, it was ‘faith alone’; for the Reformed it was
faith working by love.,’11
So then what is the relationship between faith and fidelity? First, according to the Reformed faith, we are saved by the faith and faithfulness of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us (Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9). The reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to us, both active and passive, is incomplete unless it is understood as including the font of His righteous life, which is the perfect faith that Jesus Christ had in His Father (Heb. 3:2; 5:7-9). All that Christ has and is has been given to us (1 Cor. 3:22-23).
This means that our true saving faith ( fides salvifica) is therefore inextricably linked to the necessary object of that faith, which is the Word of God, the person of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:30). This saving faith does not exist apart from a true covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It does not exist apart from union with Christ.
Now this fides salvifica does not cause obedience in the way that a billiard ball striking another one causes it to move. It is not mechanical. Rather, it brings about obedience organically, the way life in a body causes that body to breathe. As a body without the spirit is dead so faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:26). This is why saving faith necessarily lives and acts. One of the principal acts performed by such saving faith is the act of trusting in Christ alone for both justification and sanctification.
Think of it this way. Saving faith is a mother who always bears twins—justification and sanctification, in that order—so that we can see easily that when justification is
born, his mother does not die, but rather brings his younger brother
obedience into the world. But we cannot forget an important part of the illustration. The “mother”—faith—is trusting and obedient in how she gives birth. Saving faith is the alone trusting instrument of justification, and, immediately following, that same saving faith the alone trusting instrument of sanctification, and reveals itself always as a faith working through love. Saving faith that does not trust and obey is a saving faith that does not exist. We never have raw faith without trust, and then, a moment later, trust arrives.
As mentioned earlier, the historic Protestant understanding of fides salvifica sees it as consisting of an inseparable unity of assensus, notitia, and fiducia . It is the essential nature of fiducia to trust gladly in everything that God has spoken in His Word—whether law or gospel, Old or New Testaments, poems or prose, odd-numbered pages or even. This means that fides salvifica is related to ongoing fidelity, trust or obedience in the same way that a body is related to breathing. Without a body, there is nothing to breathe with. Without breathing, there is something that needs to be buried.
Fides salvifica receives all of Scripture as good news from a gracious God. In a general sense, all is gospel. But the Scripture does contain what might be called the Gospel proper, the good news of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. This is why the Protestant scholastics also said that there was a fides evangelica that specifically trusts in the revelation that God gives to us in the gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the faith exhibited when someone hears the gospel preached.
And so this section concludes with some awkwardness. I do agree with the New Perspective on this issue. Faith and fidelity are organically related and are alive together. But as much as I would like to, I cannot rejoice in this agreement—because the critique offered of the
Old Perspective appears to assume that prior to the publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism , the entire Protestant world was more or less Lutheran. Put another way, the exegesis of Paul is strong (at this point). But the representation of historical theology since the Reformation is really weak.
And this reveals the taint of modernity. A doctrinal argument represented as being between Old and New reveals the head of that old dragon Progress.
We modern scholars have a better understanding of Paul than the scholars of another era did sounds a lot more cutting-edge than simply joining in with a three-hundred-fifty year-old denominational debate, and taking up ordinary sides. We are like the Athenians, who liked nothing more than to hear the latest thing. This is why holding to a new and improved perspective is a lot sexier than simply not being a Lutheran
Law in Opposition to Grace?
A similar thing happens with the third issue, the issue of the relationship of law and grace. The Reformed have historically understood the two in harmony, while the Lutherans have seen an antithesis. It is true that the law of Moses and the grace of the gospel preached by Christ were seen as being in conflict by Martin Luther.
In discussing Genesis 17, Martin Luther said,
If someone should diligently stress this chapter, he will find countless supporters and pupils, for in it Moses assembles such powerful arguments in favor of circumcision that St. Paul had to resist with all his might.12 In other words, according to Luther, the tension was between Moses and Paul, and not between Moses misunderstood by first-century Jews and Moses understood by Paul. This assumed tension between law and grace is something that is at the very heart of the Lutheran tradition, and the Reformed have been opposed to this from the beginning. Thus, when the New Perspective takes issue with the Lutherans at this same point, it hardly qualifies to run on the front page of the newspaper in Second Coming type.13
Lillback gives a detailed contrast of the work of Luther and Bullinger in their exegesis of Genesis 17. As he ably puts it,
The differences can be stated pointedly—Genesis 17 is law for Luther and gospel for Bullinger.14 The Lutheran approach is to divide the Bible into two categories, law and gospel. This is not to be understood as the same as the Old and New Testament because the Old Testament includes both law and gospel, and the New Testament includes both law and gospel. This distinction is self-consciously understood to be foundational for hermeneutics. In other words, this fundamental distinction is resident in the text, and the job of the exegete is to discover which category the passage is in.
Before proceeding further, it is important to note that there is agreement between the Lutheran and historic Reformed position if the discussion involves the psychology of individual conversion . In other words, the Bible does contain moral imperatives and commandments which reveal and increase sin (Rom. 3:20; 5:20). And the Bible also contains words of peace in the gospel explicitly stated as such. Consequently, when a man in rebellion is convicted by the moral demands of the law, reflects on his position before God, hears the gospel preached, and repents and believes, it is fully appropriate to discuss this transition in terms of law and grace, law and gospel.
But the psychology of conversion ought not to be transformed into a hermeneutic. Suppose a man is an adulterer. He has his attention drawn to the words of Scripture—the command to not commit adultery. He hears that God will judge him for his disobedience (Heb. 13:4). He comes under conviction of sin and repents. This is wonderful, but none of it changes the fact that exegetically the Ten Commandments (including the prohibition of adultery which convicted this man of his sin) are presented to the people of Israel as gospel. The preamble of the Decalogue is a declaration that God is the One who delivered us from the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. That is good news—gospel.
All this is to say that there are some additional subtleties involved. The Scriptures divide men into two great categories, those who believe and those who do not (Matt. 25:33). This in turn gives us two fundamental hermeneutics—one of faith and love, and the other of unbelief and hatred. The former hermeneutic is faithful and correct, while the latter hermeneutic is rebellious.
For the unbelieving heart, the Word of God in its entirety comes as law, condemning the sinner. This is particularly evident with the moral imperatives of Scripture, but it is equally true of the words of consolation and hope. To those who are perishing, the words of Christ our Savior are the very aroma of death.
Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? (2 Cor. 2:14-16).
So the unbelieving heart sees law and condemnation everywhere, including in the gospel. For unbelief, law is condemning law and liberating gospel is condemning law. For faith, law is gospel and gospel is gospel.
For the believing heart, the Word of God in its entirety comes as gospel, bringing the sinner to salvation. This is particularly evident with the declaration of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, the heart of the gospel message. But it is also true of the Ten Commandments, which are words of joyful deliverance and salvation (Ex. 20:1). The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul (Ps. 19:7). Moses declared that the law was not too hard for Israel to keep. This passage is applied by Paul to Christ Himself (Dt. 30:11-14; Rom. 10:6-11). This is because Christ is the telos of the law for everyone that believes (Rom. 10:4). The word is near us—it is in our hearts and in our mouths. So the believing heart sees Christ everywhere, including in the law.
But as stated before, it is nevertheless proper to argue that in the work of salvation, in the transition from unbelief to faith, God uses the moral demands of Scripture to make sinners aware of their need for salvation (Rom. 3:20; 5:20; 7:7; Gal. 3:19; Mk. 10:18-19), and He uses the message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to deliver them from the condemnation of this law (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
I said at the beginning of this section that for the Reformed, law and grace, or obedience and gospel, were in complete harmony. But how would the Reformed answer a Lutheran challenge that any such attempt at
harmonizing is actually adulterating the purity of grace? How can obedience and grace be combined without distorting the nature of grace? As an ultimate principle in justification, they cannot be. Grace drives out works, just as works drive out grace (Rom. 11:6). But the classic Calvinist answer here is a nuanced one, and those in the contemporary Reformed world who have attacked some of their brethren for abandoning the Reformed position are doing so because they have actually abandoned it themselves. They are critiquing their brothers in just the same way that Luther critiqued our fathers. Lillback addresses this effectively.
Thus Calvin occupies middle ground between the merit system of the medieval Schoolmen and the law/gospel hermeneutic of the Lutheran system. Calvin was able to conjoin the concept of God’s acceptance of men’s works with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, by making this acceptance a subordinate righteousness to justification. Because it was subordinate, it was not contrary to justification righteousness. Calvin presents a remarkable synthesis between the old system of justification of the nominalists and the new system of justification of the Reformation. In so doing, he appeals to the covenant and to the Scriptures as the basis for his position.15
Consequently, in the life of the believer, according to the Westminster Confession, there is no tension at all between law and grace. In the life of the believer, the one who understands this aright, how is the law to be understood?
Neither are the aforementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel,
but do sweetly comply with it, . . .16
But in his discussion of this issue, Thompson does not give sufficient weight to the historic position of the Reformed at all. He rightly chastises those who repeat the error of Marcion, who fail to see the positive role that Paul continued to assign to the law. But he then goes on to say that many modern Christians have slipped into this error in part because it was
inherited from the Reformation. Again, while we can applaud the doctrinal point, it is simply false to say that
the Reformation was responsible for this dichotomy. As an exercise in exegetical theology, well done. As an exercise in historical theology, C minus. Maybe even an F.
Thompson also says,
A close reading of Paul’s letters reflects more of an emphasis on relationship between groups of people, and more specifically, Jews and Gentiles within the body of Christ, than on the individual’s relationship to God.17
This simply appears to me to be a category confusion—different people are talking at different levels about different things. This is what I meant in an argument I presented elsewhere about eggs and omelets.18 When I am cooking breakfast, it appears to me to be misdirected and confused to ask if my “focus” is on eggs or omelets. I have no way of making sense out of this kind of question. There is no tension between the living Temple and the living stones, or between a flock of sheep and a sheep in the flock. Those who talk about corporate entities over against individuals have created a quite unnecessary distinction, and a stumbling block to go with it.
To his credit, N.T. Wright acknowledges that groups of people are actually made up of people, and so contrary to the assumption of many he affirms individual justification as a theological truth. This means my difference with Wright at this point is not theological, but rather exegetical. Simplifying somewhat, he thinks that the text is all omelet, but that eggs can (and must) be theologically inferred. For example:
Some still use him [Paul] to legitimate an old-style preaching of the gospel in which the basic problem is human sin and pride and the basic answer is the cross of Christ. Others, without wishing to deny this as part of the Pauline message, are struggling to do justice to the wider categories and the larger questions that seem to be a non-negotiable part of Paul’s whole teaching. This, indeed, is the category into which I would put myself, as the present work will make clear.19
In contrast to Wright’s theological affirmation, I see a direct exegetical basis for an application of justification to individuals. In other words, I think the text sometimes talks about eggs, as well as omelets. But even so, in Scripture, when the omelet is mentioned (the church), the eggs are always in view (the individual members) And when the eggs are mentioned (the members), the omelet has not been forgotten.
The New Perspective has done a fine job in pointing out the corporate realities that are present throughout the New Testament, particularly when it comes to the important categories of Jew and Gentile. Discussions of justification (as an abstract mechanism for saving sinners) without reference to Jews and Gentiles are discussions which are obviously not dealing with the text.
But, at the same time, there are numerous places, where individuals, considered as such , are mentioned also, and not just in passing. When they are mentioned, the category to which they belong is not forgotten. And when the category is mentioned, neither is the individual erased. The two are in complete harmony, and the dislocations and fragmentations of modernity are what create the problem for us. In the following example, the emphases are (obviously) mine.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it . For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matt. 16:24-26).
Among others, Jesus was talking about Barnabas Smith, the guy standing there in the second row from the back. But in no way does this neglect the corporate reality of the church at all. Jesus said this, after all, to His disciples.
To change the illustration, suppose a school of theology arose which maintained that when God said,
Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated, He only meant that He was rejecting the corporate nation of Edom. Suppose further it was pointed out that this citation comes from Malachi, where the prophet is contextually talking about the nation of Edom. And further, suppose that this corporate emphasis is supposed to preclude an emphasis on individuals.
This is like saying that the airliner crashed into the side of a mountain and was consumed in a giant fireball. This is the emphasis we ought to have. We should not shift our emphasis to say that passengers were therefore killed. It was the airplane that crashed, after all, and not the passengers. Geez Louise. There is a basic problem here.
But of course, pietistic individualists are no better. They have hundreds of passengers smacking the side of the mountain, and no airplane. Basic questions arise here also. How did they get up there?
Aside from the logical problems with all this, we also have a fundamental problem with the texts. Suppose for a moment that the
individual self or personality was invented by Shakespeare, or by someone else in the Renaissance, as trendy-thought now has it. What are we to make of Augustine’s Confessions? More to the point, what are we to make of the plain statements of Scripture?
Krister Stendahl started a trend in contemporary biblical studies by saying that the “introspective conscience of the west” has been anachronistically projected back onto Paul, and is really the result of Augustine’s conflict with Pelagius and Martin Luther’s conflict with the Roman Church. Because of these historic dust-ups, we have been subsequently trained to be spiritually introspective, and to think that Paul had the same problems with morbidity that we do.
But if there were an inventor of individual personality in history (there hasn’t been, but suppose with me for a moment), that inventor would have to be the Lord Jesus. He is the One who taught us that there are two ultimate destinations for human beings, Paradise and Gehenna, and that we go to our respective places by ones. The divisible unit here is the individual, not the family, not the city, not the nation. He also taught us that the standard for making the cut was a strict one. We will be brought under judgment for every idle word we utter (Matt. 12:36). When the sheep and the goats assemble before Him (in their corporate roles), a large number of particular events are brought up (Matt. 25: 33-46). When, throughout our lives, we give individual glasses of water to those who are individually thirsty, the fact is noted by the Lord Jesus. If a strong concept of the individual had not existed before this (from Adam to Jesus), I cannot imagine a better recipe for calling such a concept into being.
Individualist revivalism needs to abandon its neglect of the covenant people, the church. The biblical word for such an abandonment is repentance. Pietism has clearly driven us into the ditch on the left side of the road. But at this point, advocates of the New Perspective need to recognize that the ditch water on the right side is just as cold.
Judaism a Religion of Merit?
Thus far we have had a large measure of (exegetical) agreement with the New Perspective, and some measured, qualified (historical) disagreement. However, the remaining two issues for us to consider reveal what seems to me to be theologians’ perennial temptation to pastoral naivete. In this respect, New Perspective theologians appear to be no exception to the general rule.
Bear with me for a moment, but Judaism is an abstraction and does not exist. Second Temple Judaism is likewise an abstraction. There may be times when it is a helpful abstraction, but the standing problem with all abstractions is that those who traffic in them tend to reify them in the process, and by the end of the day, we have serious theological confusion. In arguing this point, I am extending and applying the same essential point that Peter Leithart has made elsewhere about
and other assorted isms.
Christianity, like Judaism and
Yahwism, is an invention of biblical scholars, theologians, and politicians, and one of its chief effects is to keep Christians and the church in their proper marginal place.20
Jews lived as the covenant people, but the ism of Judaism is the kind of thing you get off the page of a tome. (As the fellow said, beware of all isms except for prisms.) After He was given universal dominion (Dan. 7:13ff), Jesus Christ destroyed Jerusalem, and He did nothing whatever to
Judaism. He leveled a city because of its wickedness; He did not edit an idea. He killed many wicked hypocrites, and not
technically correct>/quote> language on a page. Jesus said that the Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat (Matt. 23:1-3). Their
Judaism was therefore creedally correct (for the most part), and the New Perspective is therefore correct about them (in this trivial sense). But note that when Jesus said that they sat in Moses’ seat, He said it in His preamble to some of the most scathing words of the New Testament. When the New Testament tells us that the Pharisees were doctrinally closer to the mark than were the Saduccees, this was quite true, but not exactly the same thing as a compliment.
Note the example of the Pharisee praying in the Temple alongside the publican. Everything he said was orthodox, and in full accord with what the New Perspective says about Judaism—
I thank thee, God, that I am not like other men (Luke 18:9-14). His confession was fully orthodox, and on paper he was affirming one of the five solas of the Reformation. He was clearly not advocating a religion of works. Soli Deo gloria! But he had a heart full of works nonetheless, which is the whole point of Jesus’ story, and he consequently went home unjustified. Nevertheless, he was a circumcised member of the justified people. According to the parable, he was a hypocrite, which presupposes the rightness of what he professes to believe.
A New Perspective theologian could therefore discover a book written by t his particular Pharisee and demonstrate for us all that his Judaism was not a religion of works. Of course it was not. But the rebellious unconverted heart is always a religion of works unto itself, and will turn anything into works, and that includes high-octane grace alone-ism. I think we have seen more than a little bit of this, actually, in our current controversy. But a first-century peasant listening to this shrewd parable winks at the right part of the story and gets the point. The Pharisee was lying.
And the generation of Jews upon whom the blood of Abel came was judged because God did not believe them. When they said they believed in the grace of God, He did not believe them. They were lying too. So why should we start believing them now? Judaism as an abstraction is fine (and always was), but Judaism is a paper thing. Judgment fell on a wicked generation, not on an ism. There was never a problem with Moses’ seat itself; the problem was with the Pharisaical hinderparts ensconced there. And centuries later, the problem was not that men said they occupied the See of Peter, the problem was that they had turned it into the Blind of Peter. Sons of Abraham should display a family resemblance to him, and whenever they don’t, they like to haul out their pedigree papers—as though the kingdom of God were like a really good line of Labrador retrievers.
So, the biblical contrast is between faithful Jews and unfaithful Jews. Judaism did not descend into Sheol, Capernaum did. Judaism did not see the Messiah, Simeon did. And this is where I suspect (in this New Perspective emphasis on Second Temple Judaism) an ecumenical feint. When we are told that first-century Jews were not Pelagians, but held to a religion of grace, I believe that liberal New Perspectve men (like Sanders) are wanting to say that they weren’t that bad after all. But this would mean that Jesus was wrong-headed in His destruction of them when He razed Jerusalem.
Now when the New Perspective addresses this question, they want to say that the problem of Judaism was nationalist zeal as distinct from a Pelagian and monkish zeal. And yet here is the strange thing, and the point where I think additional clarifications must be made.
Nationalist bigotry is simply one more application of the broad sin of autonomy, self-law, and legalism. I understand the essential legalistic attitude to be one of self-righteousness. This is the container of all evils, the jar of all mischief. What it contains may vary; the standards of self-righteousness vary from one legalistic community to another. Some legalists prohibit dancing, others alcohol, others fraternizing with Gentiles, and still others are now trying to prohibit reading the Westminster Confession in its 17th century sense. This is why I see Pelagius, Carrie Nation, Rabbi Nonesuch, and John Robbins as all cut from the same cloth.They flavor the juice inside their jars differently, but in the final outcome what they want to use to commend themselves to God is preferred over what God actually requires of them. The jar always has the same monotonous shape, and has Me printed on the label. In the final analysis, there is only self-righteousness or God-righteousness because there are only two final destinations after the Judgment. No one condemned to hell
has a point.
Pelagius and Caiphas differed in that their standards of self-righteousness differed; they are the same in that they both insist on such a self-righteousness. Of course, first-century Jews were not Pelagian in the details of their lives. Nor were they Pelagian in their creed. But they were Pelagian at heart, just as Pelagius was a Pharisee at heart. This is what Paul is addressing, for example, when he calls the unbelieving Jews Ishamaelites.
Sons of Sarah, are you? Not a bit of it! You are sons of Hagar. But there were countless senses in which they were not sons of Hagar. But in the essential respect, the point under discussion, they were. If it is somehow unfair to call first-century rabbis Pelagians, then how was it fair to call them Ishamelites?
The Christian faith fights the brood of the serpent from the beginning of the battle to the end of it. That worm brood shows up in the strangest places—rabbinical schools, monasteries, Reformed list serves, temperance meetings, and presbyteries. But it is always the same battle; it is always the same serpent we must crush.
My earlier point was that theologians tend to pour over the creeds, and note all the differences and similarities. I even think they are right much of the time. But practicing pastors should be able to identify the monotonous egoism that accompanies all sinning. This egoism can come out even when the creed embraced is the very antithesis of what the ego is actually doing with it. To illustrate this, take John Newton’s point about some Calvinists who take pride in the fact that they have a creed that does not allow them to take pride in anything. The human heart is truly a marvel!
And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of . . . Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace.21
God must have all the glory, and some are His enemies because of the way they affirm this very truth. Several centuries from now, we might see the development of a “new perspective” on die-hard and bitter Calvinism. The words of the confessions would be read and taken at face value—grace! grace! grace alone!—but the inconsistency with a true, robust and biblical Calvinism (and the resultant graciousness ) would be missed. This would be because the hypocritical inconsistencies got buried when the people who embodied them died.
So pride is not connected to a particular set of mechanics, and given the potential perversity of the human heart, that kind of pride can function anywhere. Affirm merit, and self-righteousness can take pride in affirming it. Deny merit, and self-righteousness can take pride in denying it. This means there is no problem with the denial that a formal medieval merit theology was operative in first-century Judaism. But in my mind, this is like saying the evil self-righteousness of the first century was painted blue, and the evil self-righteousness of the 16th century was painted light blue. Who cares?
This is why certain conservatives among the Reformed are making noise about the gospel being at stake. We must affirm that the gospel is the answer to the universal human problem, which is self-righteousness. If the gospel is entirely contexualized in a first-century setting, with no principle to guide us in extending it to our lives, then what shall we do? This is why there are reasonable men among the
truly reformed who are worried because they believe that the New Perspective contains more than a few advocates who appear to be theologically brilliant but pastorally naive. The problem is that they fear we have let down our guard against this perennial temptation to self-righteousness because they think we have not emphatically stated that nationalistic bigotry is just one more species in the universal genus of legalistic self-righteousness. But once we have made that point clear—that the difference between the works of Alexander VI and Caiphas is really the difference between dog-skubalon and cat-skubalon, both of them belonging to the same excremental genus—I think the reasonable guys in the conservative Reformed world would settle way down. However, the unreasonable fellows among them—the Pharisees of
true heart conversion—will not settle down regardless of what is said or done.
Returning to the instance of the Pharisee and the publican, suppose the argument comes back at us that the contrast in that parable was not for the sake of those who wondered how they could establish a relationship with God. This argument says that these things are not in Scripture so that we could learn how to “come to Jesus.” Rather, covenant faithfulness is about staying in, not about getting in.
Going back to my objection to Sanders, I regard this as true but trivial. We are to walk the way we started to walk. We maintain the same way we began, which is to say, by faith. Salvation is by faith from first to last. As you received Christ Jesus as Lord, so walk in Him (Col. 2:6). Someone who tries to keep himself in relationship with God by being self-righteous is likely one who presented himself for baptism for the same reason. Rather, we are to start by faith, walk by faith, finish by faith. The antithesis of this faith is self-righteousness. What does it matter when the self-righteousness
came out? The pox may appear on the skin at many different times, but the disease is always the same.
The parable was directed against those who thought they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. We need to place due emphasis on the phrase
who thought they were righteous. People who preen themselves on their own righteousness go home unjustified even if they were baptized in a joint service with the pope and Billy Graham officiating. The self-righteous can trust in anything but Christ. Those who have the rightousness of Christ can trust in anything but themselves. Which means they are trusting in Christ alone.
This should not be a complicated problem. It seems to me that many of our difficulties with this are because we do not want to acknowledge that there are two on-going categories among the sanctified—the sanctified and the unsanctified. Among the justified we find the same division—the justified and the unjustified. Among the baptized elect we find the elect and the non-elect. And this is not the creed of some kind of Zen Reformation. It is basic to all spiritual wisdom . Among all the descendents of Sarah, we find descendents of both Sarah and Hagar. And this is why the church today, all sons of Isaac, contains so many Ishmaelites.
Paul’s Burden of Guilt?
The New Perspective tends to think of the pre-Christian Paul as a man with a robust conscience. The Old Perspective tends to see him as a man like Martin Luther before his conversion, struggling under the weight of the law.
The problem here relates to something that was pointed out earlier. Judaism could not take away anyone’s burden of guilt, any more than the blood of the bulls and goats could. Christianity can’t take away guilt either. Words on a page are in themselves impotent. Abstractions are impotent. And it does not matter if the words are true or God-breathed.
Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me (John 5:39). In other words, you can use the Scriptures as a mural or as a window. If you use it as a mural, it does not matter how
true the picture is, it is still false. If you use it as a window, you encounter God through His Word.
So when the New Perspective denies that Judaism was incapable of taking away Paul’s guilt, the New Perspective is confounding things that are really quite simple. The questions of whether Judaism could take away Paul’s guilt and whether Jews in the first century, given the means of grace available to them, could be forgiven of their sins, are two completely separate and distinct questions. There were many forgiven Jews of that time, and they were forgiven precisely because they were not trusting anything so ethereal as Judaism, or anything so wicked as themselves. A short list of the faithful would include our Lord’s mother, Joseph, Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, the entire list found in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, et al. If they were forgiven, then so could Paul have been. But Paul was not forgiven, and this was not because of any failure of
Judaism. This was because of a failure on the part of
Paul to see what the Scriptures were actually teaching. Paul was the sinner, not Judaism.
There were plenty of faithful Jews awaiting the arrival of their Messiah, and they recognized Him when He came. And there were faithless Jews, right alongside the first group, who didn’t have a clue. These faithful and faithless Jews often sat in the same row at the synagogue (just as Christians do at church today), and when a theologian comes along twenty centuries later, examines their statement of faith, and breathlessly announces that theirs was a religion of
grace, that theologian is missing something important— the people involved.
Paul was a faithless (but externally faithful) Jew, and this set up an enormous tension in his life. It is simply false to the data to suggest that Paul was a faithful Jew who turned into a faithful Jew who simply added a belief in Jesus. As mentioned earlier, Paul refers to his pre-conversion state as one of wickedness, not one of mistakenness.
How do we meet Saul of Tarsus? We were introduced to him by Stephen, who encountered him in public debate.
And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen (Acts 6:8-9).
In this public debate with Jews from a particular synagogue, Stephen ate their lunch.
And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake(v. 10). These Jews were from various parts, including Cilicia, which happened to have been Saul’s home province. Because they were not able to withstand Stephan in debate, these men decided to take direct action.
Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, and set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law (Acts 6:11-13).
It is important to note that there are two groups here. The first is the group which lost the debate, and the second group was made up of the false witnesses which the first group suborned. Now Saul appears for the first time (by name) when Stephen is being killed. He was there giving approval to the execution, holding the cloaks of the false witnesses who were required by law to be the ones throwing the stones (Acts 7:58). This indicates that Saul was clearly a member of the first group, one of those who enticed false witnesses to lie against Stephen in a capital case. Immediately after this, Saul assumes leadership in the persecution that broke out against the church (Acts 8:1-3), indicating yet again that Saul was no bit player in all this.
Now we know that Saul was a gifted, intelligent, and intense man—a genius of the first rank. Imagine such a man in an unconverted state, and imagine how he would take to losing a debate to someone like Stephen. This is not a difficult thought experiment. But taking it a step further, such an intelligent man would also know that killing a man is not the same thing as refuting him.
In this narrative, Stephen is obviously the great heir of Moses. He did wonders and miracles among the people, just like Moses did. When he was arrested and brought to trial, his face was radiant, like that of an angel (Acts 6:15). Moses came down from the mountain with a radiant face. Stephen did not fill up Jerusalem with frogs from the Nile, but if he had done so, the point would hardly have been more obvious. These things were plain, and Saul of Tarsus poured out his hostility upon Moses by helping to kill Stephen, and it was all done in the name of Moses. It is little wonder that Saul was wound up tight like a spring on the Damascus road— before the Lord appeared to him.
There were fundamental moral issues at stake here—love of God versus hatred—and not just scholarly disagreements over covenantal boundary markers. Men of faith from the time of the older covenant would have to work through the issues surrounding covenantal nomism, but they did so with great eagerness, and without a lot of bloodshed.
And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so (Acts 17:10-11).
We have two synagogues, one in Thessalonica and one in Berea. One of them was ignoble and the other noble. But both had the same covenantal boundary markers. The distinction between them was found in things like faith, hope, and love. The differences between the two would hardly be distinguishable to a theologian squinting at them from two thousand miles (or years) away. They were both examples of Second Temple
Judaism, and the Judaism they shared was a religion of grace on paper. But grace does not adhere to paper. Grace adheres, or does not, in individual hearts.
Before his conversion, Paul was more like the ignoble Jews in Thessalonica than the Jews in Berea. He minces no words when he talks about this. When Paul looks back on the time before he submitted to Jesus of Nazareth, he describes himself with moral loathing. And he does not hold back when describing men who were just like he was.
Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe. Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:1-3).
Those who have confidence in the flesh, in their covenantal boundary markers, are dogs, not men. They are mutilators. They are unclean animals. They are evil workers. The polemical voltage here cannot be accounted for by learned appeals to covenantal nomism. This is a deeply moral indignation, and can only be justified as a moral indignation.
If this dispute really were about those boundary markers, then this means that Paul’s language (not to mention Christ’s) easily qualifies as anti-Semitic. If a man attacks a Jew and calls him a dog, simply because he adheres to the ancient customs, it is hard to avoid the charge of anti-Semitism. But this problem evaporates when we acknowledge that the covenantal boundary markers were given by God, but that some who took pride in them were corrupted in their attitudes. They were faithless, and God always blesses the faithful.
Having “confidence in the flesh” was high defiance against the God of heaven. Proud flesh attaches itself to the strangest things. If it does not submit to God in faith, then this practice of strange bonding is something it cannot help doing. Proud flesh has tried to commend itself to God on the basis of many odd things—skin color, having been baptized by a famous person, tribal affiliation, merit badges, having a lurid testimony involving cocaine and a pardon from the governor, and so on. Paul does not hesitate to lambast the form of it that he was most familiar with, which was the form that God saved him out of.
Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless (Phil. 3:4-6).
Now there is something important here. Many have noted that Paul describes himself as “blameless.” Does not blameless mean blameless? The short answer is no. Blameless here means a spotless crystal vase filled to the brim with raw sewage. Paul has just finished warning the Philippians away from men who were still just as he had been, and he described them as dogs, as evil workers. And he did not mean blameless dogs, he meant unclean scavangers. While he had done everything he thought he was supposed to do on paper, he had come to know in Christ that all this was worse than useless. This was not a genuine blamelessness.
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ (Phil. 3:7-8).
He had lost what he had before, and he reckoned all that external righteousness, all his previous confidence in the flesh as so much dung. The force of the word he uses here ( skubalon ) is striking. Let us just say that dung is a polite translation.
But what Paul had left behind was not Judaism, but rather his own wicked perversions of it. Simeon had not twisted his covenant faith in this way, and neither had many others. But Saul had done this, and consequently, he did not know or experience the grace of God. He was an unconverted man. As such, he did what unconverted men always do—attach themselves to something they like and use it to boast before God. When God brought him up short, he learned at that point to rely on the righteousness of another.
And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith (Phil. 3:9).
When this happened, his burden of guilt was removed by Christ. It was not removed by Judaism. It was not removed by Christianity, or by the Westminster Confession, or the Four Spiritual Laws. That Paul came to understand his sinfulness through his encounter with Christ is plain enough.
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief (1 Tim. 1:15).
While I am at this point, I would beg the reader to allow a brief excursus for just a moment. I have just unwittingly revealed that I naively hold to the Pauline authorship of the pastorals. This I gladly affirm, and will throw in the book of Hebrews to boot. Call, and raise you ten. And on top of that, I will assert that serious theology cannot expect to get anywhere until we knock off the urbane silliness that characterizes so much theological discussion today. The Scriptures say the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; some have taken this to mean that unbelief and autonomous rationality must be the beginning of knowledge. In light of this, the ache that some conservative scholars have to be taken seriously in the unbelieving academy is a pitiful thing indeed, and so I would like to take this opportunity to give the whole thing the universal raspberry. What Princeton, Harvard, Duke and all the theological schools in Germany really need to hear is the horse laugh of all Christendom. I mentioned earlier that proud flesh bonds to many strange things indeed, and I forgot to mention scholarship and footnotes. To steal a thought from Kirkegaard, many scholars line their britches with journal articles festooned with footnotes in order to keep the Scriptures from spanking their academically-respectable pink little bottoms.
That noted, Paul said near the end of his life that he had been the chief of sinners. He did not mean to tell us that he had been the head covenant nomist. He was a sinner, and this meant that he had been unclean. In the Jewish vocabulary, this confession meant a great deal. It was almost as though he held an office (Luke 7:39). In the Jewish mind,
sinner was not a label that was attached to all humans (even though it was acknowledged that all have sinned), but rather referred to that class of people who lived in a condition of disobedience.
They answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out (John 9:34).
Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed (John 7:47-49).
When Paul confessed that he had been the chief of sinners, he was confessing that the status which he thought he had(blamelessness) was not in fact the status which he actually had before God (greatly to be blamed). His previous opposition to the gospel of Christ was not an honest opinion, honestly arrived at. It had required a consistent and perverse reading of the Old Testament Scriptures. There was indeed a sense in which he had been externally blameless. Perhaps he had managed this by tithing mint, dill, and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of the law. Perhaps he did it by treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath. Perhaps he did it by swallowing camels and straining gnats.
But it is astounding that here we are, two thousand years later, and scholars are still swallowing the camel.
Judaism was not a religion of camel-swallowing, they solemnly announce. Of course it is not, but
Judaism had to deal with sinners, who are inveterate camel-swallowers, wherever they go. And if they cannot find a camel to swallow in the sacred text, they make one up. And those who live like this are unforgiven, and go home unjustified. This was the spiritual condition of Saul of Tarsus until God took away his sins in Jesus Christ.
As we have seen, those who are Reformed in the historic sense (not in the Lutheran sense or the American revivalist sense) have much in common with certain elements of the New Perspective. But this is simply because on these concerns, the New Perspective is a Johnny-come-lately. It is not a New Perspective at all, but an alternative Old Perspective. The historic Reformed are not Lutheran or dispensational, and they never have been.
For the remainder, some advocates of the New Perspective are Christian gentlemen who should be engaged in thoughtful debate, with a genuine willingness to give and take. N. T. Wright has a lot to contribute, in my view. And Wright acknowledges that there is no simple New Perspective position.
This already shows that, though obviously I have some things in common with Sanders, and some with J.D.G. Dunn, I am by no means an uncritical 22
new perspectiveperson. Frankly, many of the criticisms of Sanders at least, if applied to me, are not just wide of the mark, but on a different playing field altogether.
But other advocates within the New Perspective, like Sanders, really are heading off in a troubling direction, and I for one am not willing to go with them. I have been called a heretic too glibly to do the same thing to others, but in the index of Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E.P. Sanders lists “truth, ultimate” on three separate pages, all of them blank. This means that E.P. Sanders, whatever else he may be doing, is not interested in standing for the truth. And if it really is the case that he denies ultimate truth, then he really is a heretic. Nothing is neutral, not even scholarship.
So there are serious concerns with many aspects of the New Perspective, but not so serious that we cannot learn and greatly profit from the writing of someone like N.T. Wright. I compare my situation with Wright to some of the writings left to us by C.S. Lewis, who is one of the most consistently edifying writers in my library. He is so edifying that I find myself being taught and built up even when he is appalling me. I have in mind here certain portions of Reflections on the Psalms.
By no means can I give unqualified support to the New Perspective, even to the conservative wing of it represented by men like Wright. But neither can I work myself into a lather over it. And I think the concerns I have expressed in this essay would be issues that other conservative Presbyterians who appreciate Wright (as I certainly do) are more than willing to hear.
At the same time, there are many other good reasons for reading Wright (and other New Perspective writers) that go well beyond the six issues discussed in this booklet. Many conservative Reformed pastors and theologians find Wright exceptionally challenging and helpful for a number of reasons. For example, Wright establishes that the apostle Paul is a thorough-going covenant theologian. He shows that the gospel has a total claim over all human life—social, cultural, political, economic. Christians who are tired of the truncated gospel of individualistic pietism read this kind of thing gladly. Wright’s recent book on the resurrection is thoroughly orthodox, and should be received with acclaim.
Another good reason for reading him is that it challenges the insanity of some Keepers of the True Flame Presbytery, who judge the orthodoxy of some, not by what they actually teach, but by what they might have read. As I have read some critiques of my position, it is difficult to know how to answer because I do not even recognize the position I am supposed to be holding. Am I supposed to defend myself, or defend whatever it is they are attacking?23 And why should I defend that other Doug Wilson? He really does sound like a heretic. Has he written anything?
Further, Wright and Dunn and others can be extremely helpful on the exegesis of particular texts. Whatever else you say about their arguments, they are exegetical arguments. And when they are answered, they must be answered from the text. Wright set a good example to all of us when he spoke of his “sheer loyalty to the God-given text, particularly of Romans.”24
At the same time, when we limit our discussion to the six points outlined in this magazine, I do not believe the New Perspective has anything distinctively new to present. But beyond these six points, there awaits a great deal of helpful material.
Some might object even at this point, and say we are dealing with a slippery slope. Any dalliance at all with the New Perspective will encourage people to think that Pelagianism is not a big deal or something. But by this argument we should not embrace the Westminster Confession either, for many who have done this have become proud of having a creed that condemns human pride so thoroughly. The arm of the flesh is never so proud as when it is waving a banner with sola gratia inscribed on it. But Judaism does not save. Christianity does not save. Calvinism does not save. Only Jesus Christ saves, and (by faith alone) a man must look through His name, not at it, and he must look through the name of Christ to Christ Himself . The only way this can be done is through a God-given faith. The faith that saves is not in the faith that saves, but rather is placed in the Lord Jesus, and when this happens by God’s grace a man is justified through the gracious instrument of faith alone.25
Theology comes out our fingertips, and what comes out our fingertips is our true theology. Orthodoxy is life; orthodusty resists this life by keeping certain gospel propositions locked up in the cerebral cortex as the safest way of neutralizing them. But in our contemporary controversy, if anyone thinks this propositional faith is looking pale and should come outside to get a little sun, he gets attacked as a papist.
Not everyone involved in this is a modern-day Pharisee. However, I do believe it is a controversy that involves a number of their close cousins—the scribes, arbiters of all that is orthodust. Orthodusty, not having anything but its own scribal benchmarks, tends to lose all sense of doctrinal proportion. Thus we have ostensibly Reformed people making war on other Reformed people, and making common cause with Nestorians in order to do it—not to mention those who are more than a little wobbly on Chalcedon. Thus scribal orthodusty throws aside historical orthodoxy in order to propagate a very provincial (and erroneous) reading of the Westminster Standards.
Orthodusty always wants doctrines that can be counted on to stay put in their museum cases, and so therefore must reduce the glorious sola fide into solus assensus. However, the living Reformed faith has always maintained that saving faith is alive, and it expresses that life through assensus, notitia , and fiducia . And if fiducia is popery, then I’m a Hottentot.
Orthodusty consistently tries to create a realm somewhere where the grace of God is excluded. But grace is always the context of law, and not the other way around. In the mind of God there is no antithesis between law and gospel—any more than there is an antithesis between the good cop and the bad cop in the mind of the police department.
The mind of orthodusty can ruin anything, including both liturgy and systematics. So this is not about our liturgics versus their dogmatics—for both of these things by themselves, apart from the resurrected and enthroned Christ, are as hollow as a jug. Rather, this is about incarnational living, fiducia from the ground up, as opposed to head-nodding over abstractions. We are talking about a living faith in a living Christ. But if we followed some accounts of this debate, we would have to say the heretic James once coerced the apostle Paul into saying that the only thing that counts is faith working its way out in love.
One of the central charges I would level at the orthodust is that they have, by their wooden and clunky approach to the Reformed faith, made it possible for some under cover of the “New Perspective” to begin tampering with doctrines that were just fine as they were. This doctrinal debate is really a battle for the minds of second year seminarians. Sharp students who have not made up their minds yet can read both sides of a fracas, and have a pretty good idea of who is answering arguments, engaging with the material, and who is not. Thus far, I believe that those who are not dealing with the material are reactionaries in American presbyterianism who do not even understand some of the basic issues. And this has given occasion to others who, because they reject this kind of know-nothing heresy hunt, have begun a genuine drift away from biblical orthodoxy.
Nevertheless, when theological controversy breaks out, accompanied by the resultant storm of unreason, God expects us to be good stewards of that controversy. This includes meeting in all good will with brothers of good will who differ. I have good fellowship with godly, sober men who are in the
truly reformed camp, and with godly, sober men who could be described as New Perspective men. I don’t consider myself either, preferring to consider myself a sacramental Calvinist in the historic Reformed tradition—a high-church Puritan. But the boundaries of my fellowship go far beyond the boundaries of my particular denominational convictions.
I also believe men on both sides are capable of missing the central point. And so this means, if we are to be faithful to Scripture, we must answer the orthodust according to their follies, exhorting them to straighten out their orthos and sweep up their dusties, even if such exhortations give them the jim jams. And on the other side, we must call back those who are sidling away from the faith once delivered to the saints. It would be ironic to let someone move the ancient landmarks in the name of understanding covenant markers.
But as stated above, Christian gentlemen of good will are also on the various sides of this controversy as well. And I think we should find each other and talk more about all this.
1. Michael Thompson, The New Perspective on Paul (Cambridge, UK: Grove Books Limited, 2002).
2. Ibid., p. 6.
3. Ibid., p. 4.
4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 1333.
5. Thompson, p. 7.
6. William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1968), pp. 80-82.
7. Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), pp. 115-116.
8. Ibid., p. 116.
9. John Calvin, Instruction in Faith (1537) (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1977), p. 43. Emphasis is mine, all mine.
10. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1 , p. 792.
11. Peter Lillback, The Binding of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001), p. 125. Incidentally, anyone in the Reformed world involved in this controversy about the New Perspective needs to read Lillback, and those who are involved in defending a truncated view of sola fide need to answer him sometime.
12. Ibid., p. 114.
13. What is odd is that Joe Morecraft, a theonomist, makes common cause with those who are confused about this.
14. Lillback, p. 120.
15. Ibid., p. 205.
16. WCF/xix/vii. Emphasis mine.
17. Thompson, p. 6.
18. Douglas Wilson,
ReformedIs Not Enough (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002), p. 57.
19. N.T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans, 1997), p. 22. Emphasis mine.
20. Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), p. 13.
21. John Newton, The Collected Works of John Newton, Vol. I (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, ), p. 272. An irony here is that Banner of Truth recently published an article in their magazine that lumped me in with the New Perspective. Since the way it was stated was not accurate, I submitted a letter to the editor to set the record straight. Walt Chantry declined to run the letter. But if I had written it three hundred years ago, and was safely dead by now, I am sure my collected thoughts on the subject might safely appear in one of those great Banner of Truth sets. Don’t they realize that people read stuff in those old books?
Hence this note to Banner editorial staff: “I learned a bunch of this stuff from you guys! And I am especially grateful to you for teaching me the problems with the visible/invisible church distinction in your Collected Works of John Murray, which was the talk at 2002 Auburn that got me in the hottest water. But if you don’t want us to believe it, why do you print it?”
By the way, while I am on this subject, the idea that I might be worthy of having my stuff republished by Banner of Truth, even if decomposed for three hundred years, is not megalomania on my part. Banner specializes in publishing the work of obscure Puritans, and that is just what I would have been—an obscure Puritan.
22. N.T. Wright,
The Shape of Justification, Internet article on The Paul Page.
23. Christian Renewal, October 13, 2003, pp. 8-18.
Against the Tradition. It is my photo in there, but I didn’t recognize anything else.
24. N.T. Wright,
The Shape of Justification.
25. In the Christian Renewal article, one of the criticisms leveled by Cornelius Venema is that in our position, Christ
virtually vanishes.It is criticism like that makes one want to dance in place, waving one’s arms, just to work off some energy. Compare that criticism with the paragraph this footnote belongs to.