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Wright and Piper on 2 Corinthians 5:21

Wright and Piper on 2 Corinthians 5:21

A fair number of pixels have been lit up over the issue of how 2 Corinthians 5:21 is to be interpreted, and specifically how this relates to our understanding of justification. N. T. Wright has an interesting article on how “the righteousness of God” should be understood in this passage. This article was dismissed by Adrian Warnock as “wholly unconvincing” though he fails to tell us why.

Somewhat more interesting is Piper’s response to the article in his book The Future of Justification. (A PDF of the book is available here.) In the introduction he calls the article “one of the most eccentric articles in all his work” (p. 24). He dedicates chapter 11 to a response.

There is a fundamental assumption that Piper makes, that there is one, and only one way to understand justification. For him, justification is a fact, not a metaphor. It is the core reality. Metaphors can be used to describe it, but it is the real thing. I emphasize this repeatedly, because it underlies many of the arguments that Piper makes. For him, it would be quite inadequate to suggest that a different metaphor was in play in a different verse, and thus perhaps it might be understood differently.

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Keeping up with the Justification Debate

Keeping up with the Justification Debate

I am doing some reading before I respond to a couple of posts, but I did want to link to some interesting stuff.

Both Mark Olson (Pseudo-polymath) and Anne (Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength) have written posts discussing justification from a perspective other than the judicial/penal substitution approach. Their posts simply confirm to me that there are many, many valid ways to talk about the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf, and that penal substitution is just one of those. Unlike some, I do not wish to discard it, but I also will not make it the one and only metaphor.

Adrian Warnock has posted twice, first Legalism, Racism, and the First Century Jew, to which I will respond later at some length. I find much to object to in that short post, but I’m also working through Piper’s comments in their context before I blow off steam.

The second one is 2 Corinthians 5 and Romans 5 – Two Critical Passages on Justification in which he links an article that I had linked earlier, and says:

If you are interested in seeing an example of this, there is an article by Wright on 2 Corinthians 5:21 [PDF-HN] that I must say I found wholly unconvincing.

I see a great deal of “finding unconvincing” but I see remarkably little actual exegetical argument. The primary form of argument appears to be theological. If the question is whether the new perspectives on Paul differ from prior theological statements, then we can cheerfully answer yes, and go on. But for me the question is whether the new perspective gets us closer to correctly understanding Paul and what he has to say.

One of the keys here is to understand the paradigm shift that several interpreters have taken. If you do not accept that paradigm shift, you are likely not to accept Wright’s specific exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:21. That is not surprising, since he is dealing with that verse in the context of that new paradigm. (I am not overly fond of “paradigm shift,” as a term, or at least I don’t think I am, but it seems to me that the new perspectives on Paul do justify that term.)

Peter Kirk blogged on this same topic, and brings up a number of points. I have to say that anyone who implies that Augustine was a theological pygmy is likely to get my favorable attention! But more importantly, Peter points to one side issue, and that is the way in which (some?) reformed theology can make God look like he is a bit veracity-challenged, and can’t truly tell whether people are righteous or not.

Meanwhile, the view that I am working towards is a rejection of the “Reformed” idea that Christians remain sinners in actual fact but are nevertheless, by a legal fiction, counted as righteous in Christ. Instead of this, the picture I have, based on various biblical passages such as Ephesians 4:22-24, is that the Christian consists of two separate persons or personalities: the “old self” (in some versions “old man”, but to be understood of course in a gender generic sense) born by natural birth who is a sinner, guilty, condemned to death and destined to die; and the “new self” born of the Spirit and into Christ, who is righteous, holy, free from condemnation, will not die, and indeed is already living eternal life in God’s kingdom. . . .

Just so. Like Peter, I continue to be in flux on some of these issues. There are boundary lines that I’m fairly certain of, but others I’m studying a great deal, but Peter’s paragraph is one of those that strikes me as promising. When I read it, I feel that he is “with” Paul in a significant way. Perhaps he’ll have to adjust some, as he says, but he’s going the right direction.

I will be blogging a bit more on 2 Corinthians 5 from an exegetical point of view, hopefully in the next few days.

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.

NPP: A Starting Position

NPP: A Starting Position

I’ve been reading some more on the new perspectives on Paul, and particularly focusing on a <a href=""summary written by Mark W. Mattison and provided by The Paul Page, and a response to that summary by Chan Lai Ping. I’m going to use the list of key points in the response as a starting point. In this entry I’m merely stating where I start from as I study, and am not really trying to support that more than superficially.

Chan Lai Ping lists five issues, giving the traditional position (since Martin Luther) and the summary position of the new perspectives. Note that there are many scholars involved in what’s loosely called the “new perspectives on Paul” and they do not necessarily agree on all issues.

The five key issues are:

  1. Individualism – whether justification is primarily about the individual or the community
    My own view is that we tend to misread the entire Bible in the western world because of our individualistic view. The Biblical writers were always more concerned with community than we are, and this applies to Paul as well. Paul writes pastorally, as the pastor of church with the intent of building the health of those churches. This involves individual action and individual choices, but all of that is on the way to community
  2. Judaism – whether Judaism in the first century was a religion of legalism, and whether Paul’s attacks on the old Jerusalem can be read as an attack on Judaism
    Until I studied Galatians through the commentary by J. Louis Martyn I would have said that while Judaism is not primarily a religion of legalism, and the old covenant was not intended as legalistic, Paul was combating folks who made it into something legalistic. I think Martyn makes a good case that Paul’s “earthly Jerusalem” is that element based in the Jerusalem church that opposes his mission. Their particular legalism was in requiring the gentiles to be circumcised, and so become Torah observant Jews in order to be Christians. Now I believe it was Christian Jews who were placing this requirement on gentiles, one that was not actually a requirement of Judaism itself.
  3. The core of Paul’s message – was it more narrowly justification or a broader view of Christ’s death and resurrection
    This is a hard one for me to answer, because it seems to me that for Paul the opening of the door to the gentiles was the key element of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This act of grace made it possible for the old age and it’s barriers to be removed and exchanged with the new age. Justification is a key fruit of that.
  4. What Paul meant by the law – was Paul against all actions that might become regarded as a work, or just the misuse of the law
    Here I believe Paul was strongly opposed to misuse of the law, including the law as a means of gaining God’s favor. He obviously had no problem with admonitions and requirements, however, because he gave his churches quite a number of them. I suspect our theology might be different if students of Paul spent more time in 1 Corinthians and less in Galatians. Paul was pastoral first, which I believe is one reason that sometimes he doesn’t seem as clear and consistent as we’d like in his theology. If we just knew the pastoral situation he was addressing, I think things would make more sense.
  5. Paul’s conscience – did he face a constant battle, or was he convinced of his own standing
    This one I’ll have to work on. It seems to me that Paul had a testimony of struggles that ended in victory, so that his writing doesn’t speak with one voice. My guess as I start looking at him more seriously is that he lived a life of victory, but didn’t spend all his time on the mountaintop, much like many of us today.

(For discussion, please see the <a href=""summary and response cited above.)

I expect to spend some time going through various of these articles on Paul and making further notes on some of the key passages.

Information on FV (Federal Vision)

Information on FV (Federal Vision)

I found the this post on the Federal Vision (FV) because the author tracked back to a post on my Threads blog that is related to my Look at New Perspectives on Paul entry. It’s not my intent to discuss the FV and the relationship of the Westminster Confession to the new perspectives on Paul, nor do I plan to debate the doctrinal issues of the PCA directly. But I suspect that most readers of this blog are not PCA and might want to know what those things are since I referenced them.

Having provided these links, my plan is to blog about materials I read on NPP strictly from the point of view of their accuracy. Are the new perspectives giving us a better idea of what Paul meant or not? I won’t be trying to fit those ideas into a particular doctrinal perspective. I do have one, of course. I don’t deny having biases and preconceptions. I’ll do my best, however, to set them aside.