Putting Paul in Perspective: A Final Justification for the Future

(This is the seventh and final article in a series on the New Perspective on Paul)

As we have noted, 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 a rather Old Perspective. The historic Reformed are not Lutheran or dispensational, and they never have been. Unfortunately, it has taken a virtual revolution in Pauline studies to remind those who should have never forgotten this fact.

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 new-perspective-person. Frankly, many of the criticisms of Wright at least, 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 occasionally 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. When one reads scholars, one should do so with a critical eye. But one should read them nonetheless.

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 Reformed and Presbyterian men 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 series of articles. 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 book on the resurrection is thoroughly orthodox, and should be received with much 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 these position position, it is difficult to know how to answer because I do not even recognize the position I am supposed to be against.

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.”

At the same time, when we limit our discussion to the six points outlined in this series, 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. As Richard Hooker once famously quipped, “We are justified through faith alone, not by believing that we are justified through faith alone.” We would do well to remember that.

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. It’s a new form of “Me and my Son John, us four and no more” tribalism. May that tribe decrease.

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 to 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 milk 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 Reformed circles who do not even understand some of the most 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 historic Calvinist in the historic Reformed tradition—a high-church Puritan. But the boundaries of my fellowship go far beyond the boundaries of any 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 vapors. 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. Brothers, we are not perfectionists.

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