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New Perspectives on Paul – Shifting the Paradigm

New Perspectives on Paul – Shifting the Paradigm

I find myself commenting a bit on this topic before I really feel ready to do so, but there are certain things I’d like to insert into the conversation that is being generated from Adrian Warnock’s blog, through the discussion of John Piper’s book The Future of Justification. (Some preliminary notes on the new perspectives may be found on my participatory Bible study blog, category New Perspectives on Paul. All these are just my notes as I journey through some of this interesting writing.)

Adrian has put a good deal of emphasis on what he sees as the gracious approach that John Piper has taken toward N. T. Wright’s work, and how accurately, in his view, Bishop Wright has been portrayed. I have no reason to believe that Piper is intending to be anything but gracious and accurate, and yet there are some things that bother me just a bit. (On these, see below.)

I’m going to outline the points here, but much of my reading on the new perspective has been from sources other than N. T. Wright, so I want to emphasize two things. First, I am in no way trying to characterize Wright’s views on this. I think those who really want to understand him should read what he has written. I linked to an excellent paper he wrote in my previous post on this topic, Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism (PDF). Second, I am myself exploring these ideas, and my training was primarily Old Testament, though I did a considerable amount of exegesis in Greek in school, and afterward. But even so I think I can perhaps help clarify a couple of things.

I started from Adrian’s post today, Legalism Versus Grace in First Century Judaism, in which he says:

Anyone who has read anything about the New Perspectives on Paul will realize that one of the key arguments is that we have misunderstood the Pharisees through the perspective of the Reformation. The first century Jews were never legalists, we are told. . . .

But there are a number of problems with this claim as well. First, it is not essential for the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) that one assume that there were no Jewish legalists, or that there were no legalistic Pharisees. The key position is that Judaism was and is not a legalistic religion, and that in it favor with God was based on grace. I can find any number of legalistic Christians, plenty of whom would fit as targets of some passages in Luke 18 (cited by Adrian later in the paragraph), but they do not make Christianity into a legalistic religion by nature.

Jesus can encounter dozens and hundreds of legalistic Pharisees, and yet the essential foundation of Pharisaism need not be legalistic, nor does it have to carry over into modern Judaism in a legalistic fashion. Just how far one goes on this issue is another matter, and one which I am studying. I definitely believe that the religion of the Mosaic covenant, Israelite religion, was founded on grace expressed through the covenant. That has been my position long before I read any NPP material.

I tend to see first century Judaism as both a bit more corrupted and also more fragmented, so that I find it questionable to make many generalizations about first century Judaism. One could make a few generalizations about groups. Having said that, the Pharisees were probably one of the less corrupt groups. I suspect that they often disputed with Jesus because they were able to connect more frequently, while still not agreeing with him.

But this whole debate illustrates one of the problems I’m seeing with the online critique. (And again I must emphasize that I have not read The Future of Justification, and thus am not commenting on Piper’s own work, but only on Adrian’s presentation of it on his blog.) This issue of legalistic Pharisees as opposed to the legalistic nature of Judaism (or not, as Wright would maintain), illustrates the major paradigm shift that Wright and others are making. They are not seeing justification as dealing with whether an individual is “saved” or not, but rather as proclaiming/acknowledging that person’s entry into God’s people as a group. It is an individualistic perspective that, in answer to the claim that a faith position is based on grace, points out individuals who are legalistic.

For the NPP, we have been reading Galatians and Romans from the wrong perspective, asking the wrong questions. This was drilled into me both as an undergraduate Biblical languages student and in seminary: The message of Galatians is that we are saved by grace through faith and not by the works of the law. Essentially, in that case, Galatians is written in opposition to legalism, and particularly Jewish legalism.

Since first reading a bit about the NPP, I have worked through Galatians twice in Greek, using two different commentaries that at least partake of portions of the NPP. Each time through has been a bit mind twisting. But as I teach at the most basic level of Bible study methods, your questions often determine your answers, so it is very important to ask the right questions. In the case of Galatians, in the seminary classroom, I asked the question “How can I be saved?” I found an answer there–not by the works of the law, but rather by faith.

The NPP suggests that Paul is answering a different question: How does one become a part of God’s people, i.e. how does one come under the covenant? Paul’s enemies say it is by becoming Jews, with the sign of circumcision; Paul says that incorporation takes place because of the death and resurrection of Jesus and through faith. We are looking here much less at individual salvation, and much more at the definition of community. Neither side believes that being part of the covenant people can be earned by works. The sign and the means of incorporation are different.

This is over-simplified, partially because I haven’t incorporated the vocabulary myself, but after two passes through the book of Galatians trying to answer those questions I think I begin to see how the categories work. If you really want to try to understand the NPP, one good exercise is to ditch the “how does an individual become righteous in God’s eyes?” question, and replace it with “how and why does a person come under God’s covenant?” Then read Galatians looking for the answer to that second question. I’m not saying give up your view ahead of time. Just tentatively ask yourself how the book would work if you were asking a different question.

Ironically, it looks to me like Piper might have erred in an attempt to be as gracious as possible. He attempts to read Wright as favorably as possible from his own perspective. In Adrian’s post John Piper: Is N. T. Wright Preaching Another Gospel?, he quotes Piper noting the areas in which Wright would agree with the reformed view, and then the single item on which he disagrees. From Piper’s point of view, making Wright agree in most senses with the reformed view appears gracious. But it looks to me like he is missing the point. It is not that Wright goes along with the standard view and then disagrees because he does not believe righteousness is imputed or imparted. Rather, he is defining righteousness in a different way, and therefore the declaration that one is righteous means something different. It is a paradigm shift in which almost all definitions are adjusted, not a minor alteration.

I think we need to understand the NPP, and particularly Wright’s view of all of this carefully as a whole. Picking it apart in a point by point comparison with the reformed view, or any other for that matter, will not work well, because Wright is shifting the categories. Justification doesn’t mean the same thing to him as it does to a traditional reformed theologian.

A Question of Ecumenism, Theology, or Exegesis

A Question of Ecumenism, Theology, or Exegesis

Over the last few days Adrian Warnock has been posting excerpts from John Piper’s new book on justification, The Future of Justification. His latest seems to represent an escalation, with its title John Piper: Is N. T. Wright Preaching Another Gospel?. Adrian has maintained throughout that Piper is being gracious to Wright and is accurately representing Wright’s views.

Other than to note the escalation, however, the grace (or lack thereof) of Piper’s book (which I have not read) is not my topic. I don’t have a dog in this hunt, so to speak, because I am not nearly as concerned that one gets justification precisely right. This topic is, in my view, very susceptible to “doctrinal correctness”–a tenseness about precise terms that makes it difficult to explore. Reformed theologians in particular seem to want to make one’s precise understanding of justification they anchor point of their theology. They equate it with the gospel. I couldn’t possibly disagree more. The gospel is not a precise understanding of esoteric points of theology.

Which leads me to the actual purpose of this post. What is driving the discussion? Piper is criticizing Wright’s view on justification, and I’m not going to criticize him directly, but there is a clear tendency in Adrian’s quotes from Piper, and that is simply define what reformed theology has been up until now, demonstrate that Wright disagrees, and leave the obvious impression that Wright must be wrong.

Elsewhere, there are some who claim that Wright’s theology is driven by ecumenical goals–bringing Catholic and protestant views together. I’m not sure how well that is going, if it is true. Certainly the hardliners in the reformed camp aren’t feeling the ecumenical spirit in all of this.

But when I read Wright himself, I get a different impression entirely of his driving force. Now I need to place a caveat here. I am only a small part of the way through my own preliminary studies of this New Perspectives on Paul, and I probably won’t try to express my own opinion on some of the key issues for months. Right now I can simply say that the work of Wright answers some questions about Paul for me and raises others. I’m tempted to simply fall back to the notion that Paul was a complex character, and does not willingly fit into our theological boxes.

When N. T. Wright goes about doing his own writing he appears to me to be driven not to find or produce a particular theological result, but rather by exegetical concerns. He seems to be more careful to follow the text where it leads than the majority of writers. I’ve read. For an example of his exegetical writing, see On Becoming the Righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). For a more theological view, with Wright expressing his own view of justification, see Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism.

In response to this, we need more than theology. I have no doubt that there are reformed theologians making theological arguments, yet there are also many who are simply happy to point out that Wright fails to meet their standards of “orthodox evangelical theology” and thus can be dismissed out of hand.

But wasn’t one of the features of the reformation going directly back to scripture? At this point it looks to me like the Bishop of Durham is behaving like a reformation theologian–digging through the texts and trying to come to the best understanding possible, while the purported defenders of the reformation are left to point out just how orthodox their teaching is–by their standards.

If I’m given the choice between defending theological turf and wrestling with exegesis and trying to understand Paul in his world and mission I’ll choose the latter every time.

Morning Reading – 11/6/2007

Morning Reading – 11/6/2007

I read a large number of blog entries each day, and I never have time to comment on everything I’d like to. Considering how many posts I do write, this may be a good thing. One way to comment without having to write is by linking to extremely good posts, and this morning provided me with some excellent material.

Responding to Torture

First, I have been trying to get a handle on writing a post on torture, with the Mukasey hearings, but I haven’t gotten beyond “torture is evil.” After that it feels odd to be explaining that torture is bad. It’s so much a part of me, that I have a hard time taking it seriously as a debate, but there it is, being debated by presumably serious people.

But Joe Carter has saved me on this point, by writing a 100% on target, excellent post, Our Tortured Silence: The Shameful Response of Christians to Waterboarding.

All I would add is that our fear sometimes makes us waffle on our moral convictions. We must fight terrorism, but we must be sure to maintain our integrity while we do it, or the terrorists win even if we physically defeat them. Let’s be sure we like who we are when we’re done.

Dividing the Denominations

Through an unrelated comment, I found a post on the division of the church, Happy Reformation Day/Hallowe’en. This relates to my own previous post, Setting Doctrinal Priorities. I’m not concerned about their being denominations, or at least accountability organizations that bring congregations together, but we very often do not see the unifying factors, and thus splinter further and further.

What is the Gospel?

Again, relating to two earlier posts, Adrian Warnock has posted on justification again, and after quoting a description of forensic justification, and details of imputed righteousness, he says:

That, my dear reader, is the Gospel. What better explanation of it have you ever read?

Now I don’t have a problem with Adrian seeing the gospel there, but that is simply one way of expressing it; it is not the only one. When we divide along such detailed lines, I see many problems ahead for Christian unity.

Quotes on Imputed Righteousness

Quotes on Imputed Righteousness

The translator’s difficulty with this passage arises from the lack of a single English verb to express both “do right” and “be right with God”; of a noun that means both “righteousness” and “acceptance with God as righteous”; and of an adjective to describe the man who is both “righteous” and “accepted as righteous,” or to use the Latin, both “just” and “justified.” The resulting obscurities and inconsistencies give aid and comfort to human nature–Paul would say “the flesh”–in its habit of divorcing faith from faithfulness and justification from righteousness. The interpreter has to guard against basing “justification by faith” upon a fictive or imputed righteousness rather than presenting it as an actuality inseparable from the Christian’s present life in Christ. When Paul says that the righteous man who is both just and justified is to live on the basis of faith, he is describing a way of life that is present as well as future. His faith is the determinant of action which makes righteousness actual even now.
— The Interpreter’s Bible on Galatians 3:11

But to him that worketh not – It being impossible he should without faith. But believeth, his faith is imputed to him for righteousness – Therefore God’s affirming of Abraham, that faith was imputed to him for righteousness, plainly shows that he worked not; or, in other words, that he was not justified by works, but by faith only. Hence we see plainly how groundless that opinion is, that holiness or sanctification is previous to our justification. For the sinner, being first convinced of his sin and danger by the Spirit of God, stands trembling before the awful tribunal of divine justice ; and has nothing to plead, but his own guilt, and the merits of a Mediator. Christ here interposes; justice is satisfied; the sin is remitted, and pardon is applied to the soul, by a divine faith wrought by the Holy Ghost, who then begins the great work of inward sanctification. Thus God justifies the ungodly, and yet remains just, and true to all his attributes! But let none hence presume to “continue in sin;” for to the impenitent, God “is a consuming fire.” On him that justifieth the ungodly – If a man could possibly be made holy before he was justified, it would entirely set his justification aside; seeing he could not, in the very nature of the thing, be justified if he were not, at that very time, ungodly. — John Wesley on Romans 4:5

Note that I’m not quoting these as authority for the position, but rather as expressions of this view of imputed and imparted righteousness to spark thought. I do consider both of these statements very good expressions of my own view on the matter.

I would place these expressions alongside what Adrian Warnock quoted from Wayne Grudem.

If I could add my own note, God counted (not “thought of”) Jesus as one of us (sinners), to bring an end to that reality. He counts us as righteous upon our justification, in order to begin bringing an end to the reality of sin in our lives. This is one of the problems I see with making PSA the central metaphor of the atonement. One almost has to see God in error. He sees Jesus as sinful, even though he is not, and he sees us as righteous, even though we are not. I would say that God intentional mixes the categories–counting Jesus as one of us, and then us with Jesus–to bring about the reality. He always knows what he is doing, and I think it’s better to express it in that way.