The New Perspective on Justification

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A paper presented to the Southern Florida Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America

October 19, 2004 

At the last meeting of this presbytery, I was commissioned to present a paper on the theological movement known as the New Perspective on Paul as it relates to the doctrine of justification.  This request notes a growing movement that is controversially impacting the Reformed evangelical community, to include our denomination.  In an article on this subject, the current moderator of our General Assembly, Ligon Duncan, observes that the New Perspective on Paul has achieved major inroads into the academic departments of biblical theology in the evangelical and Reformed seminaries.  As a result, increasing numbers of candidates for ministry are being persuaded or at least influenced by this new understanding of Paul and of justification.  For busy and active members of presbytery, ruling and teaching elders alike, to ignore these new developments, Duncan says, “would leave church members, ministers and ministerial students vulnerable to an opinion that is, at the very least, undermining the definition of, and confidence in, the historic Protestant understanding of the Gospel itself.”[1]

Historical Development and Leading Themes

It is often pointed out that there is no one monolithic “new perspective” on Paul, since the leading members of this movement do not share all particulars.  Nonetheless, there is a clear and well-defined community of thought in which important convictions are shared about the apostle Paul and the doctrine of justification.  Some of the concerns and aims of this movement are 1) to understand Paul in his original context rather than through the lens of so-called Western introspective thought; 2) to present a more positive view of first century Judaism in response to the twentieth century Holocaust and to defend Paul from charges of anti-Semitism; 3) to provide a biblical solution to the theological impasse over the doctrine of justification between Roman Catholics and Protestants; 4) to redefine justification in such a way that its perceived tension with sanctification is removed; and 5) to incorporate a social and political dimension into the theological category of justification.

It is always hard to pinpoint the start of a movement, but the New Perspective on Paul may be usefully traced to an influential paper given by Krister Stendahl, then Dean of Harvard Divinity School, to the American Psychological Association, in 1961.  The address was titled, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.”  Stendahl’s thesis was that Protestant Christians have misread the apostle Paul through the lens of Martin Luther’s tortured crisis of conscience, so that we understand justification in terms of questions that were of no concern to Paul, who had no such experience of introspection or burdens of guilt. 

Stendahl’s argument proceeds as follows.  First, we must realize that Paul was chiefly concerned with two things: the status of the law in a Christian setting and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church.  Stendahl articulates them in these words: “What happens to the Law (the Torah, the actual Law of Moses, not the principle of legalism) when the Messiah has come?” and “What are the ramifications of the Messiah’s arrival for the relations between Jews and Gentiles?”[2] 

Second, he argues that in the centuries after the apostolic age, Paul’s writings were neglected for the simple reason that the church was dominated by Gentiles, so that the Jew-Gentile problem was of little significance.  Third, Paul was revived in Christian theology by St. Augustine, who also reshaped the interpretation of the apostle’s writings.  It was in light of his own introspection, revealed in his Confessions, that Augustine applied Paul’s doctrine of justification to the question of guilt and assurance of salvation. 

This movement goes into higher gear when we get to Martin Luther.  Stendahl’s says, “The Augustinian line leads into the Middle Ages and reaches its climax in the penitential struggle of an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, and in his interpretation of Paul.”[3]  In late medieval Catholicism, emphasis shifted from the conversion of pagan tribes and thus from the sacrament of baptism to the maintenance of spiritual order through the penitential system and the sacrament of the mass.  This provides the backdrop for Martin Luther’s exquisite crisis of spirit that produced the Protestant doctrine of justification.  Stendahl concludes from this that the Protestant tradition reads Paul and the doctrine of justification through an introspective lens that significantly warps our understanding.  Unlike Luther, Stendahl says, Paul shows no pangs of conscience in passages like Philippians 3:6, where he states that prior to Christ’s call he was “under the law, blameless.”  E.P. Sanders summarizes Stendahl’s conclusion by saying, “Luther’s problems were not Paul’s, and we misunderstand him if we see him through Luther’s eyes.”[4]

In Stendahl’s paper, we see the basic architecture of what would become the New Perspective on Paul.  Foundational to later developments is the conviction that Paul was not concerned with individual problems of guilt but with corporate problems involving the inclusion of Gentiles, and that post-Reformation theology simply misreads the apostle.  N.T. Wright has expressed this in famous and controversial language, writing, “‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God.  It was about… who was, in fact, a member of his people… It wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.”[5]

If Stendahl provides the background for the New Perspective on Paul, the chief catalyst was provided by E.P. Sanders, now of Duke University, in his 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism.[6]  Sanders conducted a study of the non-biblical writings of Second Temple Judaism and concluded that the Jews were not legalists as they have been described in Protestant theology.  According to Sanders, evidence from the Jewish writings of Paul’s time shows that Jews did not believe they were justified by works, that is, by living up to the moral requirements of the law.  Let me allow N.T. Wright to explain:

[Sanders’] major point… can be quite simply stated.  Judaism in Paul’s day was not, as has regularly been supposed a religion of legalistic works-righteousness…  Most Protestant exegetes had read Paul and Judaism as if Judaism was a form of the old heresy Pelagianism, according to which humans must  pull themselves up by their bootstraps and thereby earn justification… No, said Sanders.  Keeping the law within Judaism always functioned within a covenantal scheme.  God took the initiative, when he made a covenant with Judaism; God’s grace thus precedes everything that people (specifically, Jews) do in response.  The Jew keeps the law out of gratitude… not, in other words, in order to get into the covenant people, but to stay in.[7]

In the place of the traditional Protestant view, Sanders coined the now-famous term covenantal nomism.  Under this scheme, which he detected as the normative Jewish view in Paul’s time, he posited that Jews entered God’s covenant by grace and stayed in by works.  According to Sanders, Paul did not reject this scheme of salvation when he became an apostle of Jesus Christ.  He added to it his belief that Jesus is Lord, and therefore the one through whom the covenant offers atonement.  The covenantal nomism that Paul taught, according to Sanders, “is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments… Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such… Righteousness in Judaism is a term which implies the maintenance of status among the group of the elect.”[8]  Notice the shift that takes place in this scheme: “righteousness” no longer denotes one’s legal standing before God but one’s membership in the covenant community.

The next major figure in the New Perspective is James D.G. Dunn, Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham, England.  Dunn tackled one of Paul’s important expressions, that threatened the emerging perspective on justification, namely, “works of the law” (erga nomou).  Romans 3:28 says, for instance, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  That would seem to threaten Sanders’ appraisal of Paul’s attitude towards justification and the supposed covenantal nomism of Second Temple Judaism.  But Dunn solves this problem by arguing that “works of the law” refers not to the attainment of God’s moral requirements, but rather to the observance of those ceremonial ethnic markers such as circumcision and table requirements.  Paul is talking about the Torah, not about some legalistic works-righteousness.  Dunn writes,

His denial that justification is from works of law is, more precisely, a denial that justification depends on circumcision or on observation of the Jewish purity and food taboos… ‘Works of the law” are nowhere understood here, either by his Jewish interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works which earn God’s favour, as merit-amassing observances.  They are rather seen as badges: they are simply what membership of the covenant people involves, what mark out the Jews as God’s people.[9]

The implication of this is profound, for to rewrite the problems Paul faced is to demand new solutions.  Dunn’s revision means that, “‘Works of the law’ do not mean ‘good works’ in general, ‘good works’ in the sense disparaged by the heirs of Luther, works in the sense of self-achievement.”[10]  Therefore, where Paul has been understood to be contrasting faith and works in his teaching on justification, he is merely contrasting faith in Christ with faith in Jewishness.  This opens the door, by implication, to a revised view of justification that includes both faith and works.

By the time we get to N.T. Wright, formerly the Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey and now the Anglican Bishop of Durham, the New Perspective has long since walked through that open door.  Wright is arguably the most evangelical of the men in this New Perspective progression, and his eloquent works, along with his fine scholarly reputation, have popularized the New Perspective among evangelicals.  His book What Saint Paul Really Said produced a firestorm of controversy with regard to justification, and since then Wright has written pointedly on the subject.  In the summer of 2003, he spoke at the 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, sponsored by Rutherford House, and in an address titled “New Perspectives on Paul” he laid out his view.  It will be helpful to work through all five of his topics as they culminate with justification:

1.     The Gospel.  Wright argues that the gospel proclaims something that has happened in history rather than a way to salvation.  He says, “‘The gospel’ is not ‘you can be saved, and here’s how’; the gospel, for Paul is ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.”  The gospel proclaims that “Israel’s history has come to its climax,” or that the Old Testament prophecy “has come true at last.”  Additionally, he said, the “gospel” was meant to confront the Roman imperial cult, insisting that “Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.”

2.     The Righteousness of God.  What is meant by Paul’s use of the phrase “the righteousness of God?”  Wright says this denotes not a righteous status that God’s people receive from God, but the righteousness of God himself.  While not denying that believers have a righteous status before God (see more below), “the righteousness of God” is about “God’s covenant-fidelity” both in judgment and in salvation.

3.     Final Judgment According to Works.  Wright suggests there has been “a massive conspiracy of silence” regarding Paul’s teaching that the believer’s final judgment is according to works.  He finds Romans 2:13 positively to teach that “the doer of the law will be justified.”  At the end of life a believer is justified, Wright says, drawing from Romans 8:3-4, “because the Spirit is at work to do, within believers, what the Law could not do – ultimately, to give life.”  It is important to recognize what Wright is and is not saying.  He is not saying that works are a necessary consequence of justification, or that justification must necessarily be joined to sanctification, or that saving faith is never alone without works.  He is saying that at the end of a believer’s life, the basis of his justification is good works.  As he says in his commentary on Romans 2:13, “Justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance, not possession.”[11]

4.     Ordo Salutis.  Wright argues that the association of justification with “conversion” is mistaken, since justification signifies membership in the covenant people, not “the initial moment of a Christian’s life.” Wright asserts that one does in fact become a Christian through faith because of the Spirit’s work in the individual’s life, but argues that “this isn’t what Paul is referring to when he speaks of ‘justification.’”

5.     Justification.  According to Wright, justification is “God’s declaration a) that someone is in the right (their sins having been forgiven through the death of Jesus) and b) that this person is a member of the true covenant family, the family God originally promised to Abraham and has now created through Christ and the Spirit, the single family which consists equally of believing Jews and believing Gentiles.”  We should note that while traditional Reformed theology understands justification as comprising both forgiveness and the imputed righteousness of Christ (see Westminster Confession of Faith XI.1), N.T. Wright and the New Perspective categorically deny the latter.  In his discussion of “the righteousness of God,” Wright specified that while God “does indeed ‘reckon righteousness’ to those who believe… this is not, for Paul, the righteousness either of God or of Christ.”  As he wrote in What St. Paul Really Said, “It makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant.  Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas, which can be passed across the courtroom.”[12]  This follows through when he focuses on justification, for while Wright affirms that the believer is reckoned as righteous, this is as a member of God’s covenant people and not by an imputation of Christ’s righteous achievement.  “Paul does not say that he sees us clothed with the earned merits of Christ,” he says.[13]

Wright further specifies that justification occurs twice.  “It occurs in the future… on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit – that is, it occurs on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense.  And, near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict.”  In this New Perspective scheme, faith is not an instrument of justification but rather “it is the anticipation in the present of the verdict which will be reaffirmed in the future.”  The present possession of faith indicates that one will go on to do good works, and it is by virtue of those good works that the believer may be ultimately justified.[14]

We have observed a sequence of thought from Krister Stendahl to N.T. Wright in which the New Perspective on Paul and on justification has grown from foundational concepts into a full-fledged system of theology.  Let us now evaluate it step-by-step, starting with Stendahl’s view of Paul.

Evaluation of the New Perspective on Justification

Stendahl looks at the Book of Romans and sees Paul’s central concern articulated in 3:29-30, where Paul says, “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.”  In other words, the point of his teaching on justification by faith was to prove that God is not merely the God of the Jews (via their possession of the law), but also of the Gentiles. 

But surely this is not a persuasive reading of Paul’s line of thought in Romans.  From the beginning of Paul’s argument, in Romans 1:18, it is clear that he is concerned about sinful mankind’s standing before a holy and wrathful God: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.”  Paul condemns the Jews not for relying on their possession of the law but for breaking it.  He argues not against their Jewishness but rather against their sin: “While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law” (2:21-23). 

In Paul’s thinking, before Jews and Gentiles are united in God’s saving covenant, they are first united in their sin.  He says, “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (3:9-10).  Paul says that the reason “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law,” is because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:21, 23).  Because they are both united in sin under God’s wrath, Jews and Gentiles “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… to be received by faith” (3:24-25).  In this light, we see that when Paul mentions Jews and Gentiles in 3:29-30, he does so not to make his main point, but to seal the point he has been making for three chapters, that God’s remedy for the condemnation of Jews and Gentiles alike is his provision of Jesus Christ as the Savior to be received by faith.

As for Stendahl’s claim that Paul knew nothing of Augustine’s introspection or Luther’s guilty torment, this too finds poor support in the Scriptures.  Paul’s statement that he was “under the law blameless” in Philippians 3:3 is well explained by the traditional view that Paul is describing his former attitude rather than his former situation.  In that same passage, Paul describes people of that kind as “dogs” and “evildoers” (v. 2).  That Paul was troubled by the sin of his pre-Christian days is well demonstrated by such statements as that of 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (see also Titus 3:3 for Paul’s assessment of his Pharisaical past, and Romans 7:15-25 for his continuing struggle as a Christian). 

As for the “introspective conscience” supposedly invented by Augustine and thrust upon us by late medieval Christendom, Douglas Wilson is right to say, “If there were an inventor of individual personality in history… that inventor would have to be the Lord Jesus.”[15]  Jesus is the one who taught, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mt. 5:3, 6).  Jesus came to Paul in his struggle with the thorn in his flesh, and said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Paul’s introspection changed in light of this, causing him to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Moving to E.P. Sanders we arrive at perhaps the most critical juncture, for the New Perspective’s view on justification utterly relies on his construction.  For many years, the main evangelical response to Sanders was to argue against using non-biblical sources to override the plain teaching of Scripture.  For instance, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 explicitly begins, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.”[16]  Whatever self-assessment Sanders may find in Rabbinic resources, the assessment of Jesus Christ remains undaunted.

But more recently, scholars in both evangelical and higher-critical circles have tested the validity of Sanders’ scholarship and found it wanting.  An example is the study performed by A. Andrew Das (Ph.D., Union Theological Seminary, Virginia), in his book Paul, the Law, and the Covenant.  Contrary to Sanders, Das found ample evidence of works-righteousness in the Second Temple period literature.  It turns out that Sanders had explained away evidence that was contrary to his thesis. Das writes, “Sanders wrongly minimized Judaism’s belief that God intended the law to be obeyed strictly and in its entirety… Sanders did not adequately account for the tendency among Jews to regard the law as requiring strict and perfect obedience.”[17]  Das draws the same conclusion as evangelical scholar Douglas Moo, who writes in his Romans commentary: “In passage after passage in his scrutiny of the Jewish literature, [Sanders] dismisses a ‘legalistic’ interpretation by arguing that the covenantal framework must be read into the text or that the passage is homiletical rather than theological in intent.”[18]

The same situation pertains to James Dunn’s vital definition of “works of the law” (erga nomou) as limited only to ceremonial markers of Jewish ethnicity.  Dunn and those on his side point out the prominence of Paul’s polemic in Galatians against circumcision and also his long diatribe against Peter’s capitulation to Judaizing table regulations.  In this respect, Dunn helps those who follow Martin Luther’s view of justification not to neglect the social and ethnic dimensions of Jewish self-righteousness. 

But the New Perspective understanding of “works of the law” simply will not address all the data.  Das points out that Paul’s use of this expression in Galatians 3:10 is a deliberate reference to Deuteronomy chapters 27-30, which strongly feature the moral obligations of the law: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”[19] 

The whole range of Paul’s polemic, both in Romans and Galatians, makes clear that he is arguing not against the biblical religion of the Old Testament, but against its perversion in his own time, one that sought righteousness in every kind of works, be they Jewishness, circumcision, or phony claims to being “blameless under the law” – the very categories rejected in Philippians 3:4-6.  Donald Hagner asserts, “Jewish thinking in Paul’s day, then, did take obeying the law to be the means to righteousness.”[20]  Paul was very deliberately presenting his gospel in opposition to works-righteousness of every kind.  This means, therefore, that when he writes in Galatians 2:16, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,” we should understand this in the traditional Protestant way as a statement of justification through faith alone apart from works.

In this regard, Douglas Wilson makes a noteworthy comment that many of the New Perspective academics are “theologically brilliant but pastorally naive.”  He explains, “We must affirm that the gospel is the answer to the universal human problem, which is self-righteousness.”  Wilson explains, “The rebellious unconverted heart is always a religion of works unto itself, and will turn anything into works,” even, he warns people in our camp, the belief in justification by grace alone.[21]  This is what we find from the earliest biblical accounts: there are only two ways that we might come to God.  One is embedded in our sinful nature, exemplified by Cain’s offering of the fruit of his labor.  The other is by grace through faith as taught by God’s revelation of the gospel, Abel’s offering of the shed blood of a lamb.  These are the only two ways, and the opposite of Christianity is always some form of works-righteousness.

Let us conclude with a critique of N.T. Wright’s position on justification.  Our scan through his position on salvation revealed many helpful comments, especially as he reminds us of the primacy of the redemptive-historical nature of the gospel (although he wrongly separates the historia salutis from its ordo salutis significance; we should reemphasize the former without jettisoning the latter).  But foremost among the remarks to which we are bound to object is his teaching on justification. 

We may access Wright’s view of justification by examining Romans 2:13 in Paul’s argument of that letter.  Wright maintains that Paul is not making a hypothetical point in Romans 2:13, but that he is setting forth the biblical way of justification when he says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”  But, as Calvin points out, the previous verse removes all doubt of Paul’s meaning, for Paul says that just as those who “sinned without the law will also perish without the law,” so also those who “sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12).  Paul’s point is to show their judgment under the law, not their justification.  Calvin explains, “Here the apostle is casting down the foolish confidence of the Jews, who claimed for themselves the sole knowledge of the law, even while they were its greatest despisers.”[22]

Wright complains that the Reformed tradition has dismissed Romans 2:13 by describing it as hypothetical.  To this we agree that Paul’s statement is not hypothetical.  As a principle it is true; one is made righteous by doing the law.  But the problem is that, as Paul goes on to insist, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (3:10-12).  Douglas Moo points out that when you bring in Romans 3:20 you have a conflict with Romans 2:13 that must be accounted for.  In Romans 2:13, Paul says, “The doers of the law will be justified.”  In Romans 3:20, however, he says, “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.”  How do we understand the relationship of those two statements?  Or as Moo asks, “Why doesn’t the covenant justify?”[23]  Romans 3:10-12 provides the answer.  The problem is our sin.  This is why Paul presents his gospel in Romans 3:23-25 as an alternative to works-righteousness: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”  This statement is not to be seen in continuity with Romans 2:13 but in contrast.  Not being able to “do the law,” we can yet be justified through faith in Jesus Christ. 

Our difference with N.T. Wright is not that he takes Romans 2:13 seriously and that we do not.  Our difference is that we take seriously Romans 3:9-11, and he does not, at least in terms of its implications for Paul’s argument in Romans 2 and 3.  Moreover, when it comes to the nature of our righteousness before God, it is Wright who does not take Romans 2:13 seriously when he denies the doctrine of imputed righteousness.  Romans 2:13 argues that justification does demand righteousness and that righteousness comes from perfect obedience to the law.  This is why N.T. Wright’s substitution of covenant righteousness in the place of the imputed righteousness of Christ simply will not do.[24]  Paul lays out the formula in Romans 5:18-19, one of the Westminster Confession’s proof-texts for the imputed righteousness of Christ.  In verse 18 Paul builds the following progression: righteousness leads to justification which leads to life.  In verse 19, he backs up one step and adds “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  If we want to have eternal life we must be justified.  If we want to be justified, we must have righteousness.  And how do we get righteousness?  By covenant membership, as N.T. Wright teaches?  No.  Righteousness comes by obedience, and through faith in Christ we not only have our sins forgiven but we receive that righteousness from God that was obtained by the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, in which we are justified and thus may enter into life.

Moreover, our issue with Wright is not on the idea of a future judgment and thus a justification or vindication in the future.  Of course there will be a final judgment for all.  Our quarrel has to do with the role of the believer’s good works in that judgment.  What do we say about the many passages in Paul and elsewhere in the New Testament to which Wright points, that show the necessity of good works in salvation, and from which he concludes that our future and ultimate justification is “according to works”?  We answer as our forefathers have for centuries, as the Reformers answered to the Council of Trent, and as the Westminster Confession answered in chapter XVI.2: “These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.”  We answer that no good works can remove the condemnation of former sins, and that none of our works attain to the perfection demanded by God’s holiness.  Yet, our persons having been justified by God – our sins having been forgiven and we having been clothed in the perfect imputed righteousness of Christ – our good works are also accepted in him and we are pleased for God to receive them and to be praised by them (see WCF XVI.5).

Therefore, we see that starting from Krister Stendahl and progressing through E.P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn, and continuing now in the writings of N.T. Wright, the New Perspective, for all its elegance and eloquence, for all the intellectual stimulation it provides to many doctrinal loci, and for all its success at advancing the causes of its supporters – a more positive view of ancient Judaism, a way to cut the Gordian knot between Protestants and Roman Catholics, a new definition of justification that seems to avoid any threat of antinomianism, and a new way to incorporate social and political dimensions into Christian salvation – it nonetheless fails adequately or accurately to summarize the actual teaching of the apostle Paul, and it threatens that doctrine that Paul himself defended so fiercely, even calling down divine anathemas on all who would teach a new and different version of justification.  “To put it bluntly,” writes Carl Trueman, “it seems to me that the current revision of the doctrine of justification as formulated by the advocates of the so-called New Perspective on Paul is nothing less than a fundamental repudiation not just of that Protestantism which seeks to stand within the creedal and doctrinal trajectories of the Reformation but also of virtually the entire Western tradition on justification from at least as far back as Augustine.”[25]  Presbyteries will want to be alert to this doctrinal revision, and to examine candidates for ordination with great care regarding the matters we have considered, and especially on their understanding of the doctrine of justification. 

Excursis: The “Auburn Avenue Theology”

It will have been evident in our survey of the New Perspective that it is a product of higher critical methods and of liberal theological institutions.  Accordingly, it has entered evangelical and Reformed academic institutions through their increasing contact with mainline schools.[26]  In recent years, however, forms of theology have arisen within conservative Reformed circles (including the PCA), that are both similar to the New Perspective and increasingly dependent on its scholarship.  Most notable is the so-called “Auburn Avenue Theology,” named for Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA), in Monroe, Louisiana, where this new theology (also called “The Federal Vision”) has been expounded through the published addresses of its annual pastor’s conference.  The Auburn Avenue theologians have made explicit their link to Norman Shepherd, whose teaching on justification resulted in his removal from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1982 but has seen a resurgence since the publication of his book The Call of Grace in 2000.

As with the New Perspective, the various writers associated with the Auburn Avenue Theology do not agree in every detail (included among them are PCA ministers Steve Wilkins, Rich Lusk, Mark Horne, and Peter Leithart).  In the summer of 2003, a colloquium took place in Ft. Lauderdale, sponsored by Knox Theological Seminary, in which many of the leading Federal Vision figures gathered with a group of their critics, including myself, personally to discuss the exegetical and theological issues.  As a result of that colloquium and the book that resulted, along with the recently published volume, The Federal Vision, we may make an assessment of their scheme of theology.[27] 

Relating the Auburn Avenue Theology to the New Perspective we find many points of contact.  They agree that Paul’s chief concern lay in the matter of Jewish-Gentile relations, and that this consideration drives Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians.  They assert that works are constituent to faith in justification, often stating that we are justified by “covenant faithfulness” and that “obedience and faith are the same thing.”[28]  In keeping with the New Perspective, at least some of them assert that we enter the covenant through faith but remain in through works, and that the final justification that determines our entry into heaven is based on works.[29]  They strongly emphasize the objective efficacy of the sacraments and show a negative attitude towards inward and supposedly subjective signs of saving faith.[30]  Among the doctrines of the Westminster Standards that they deny, contradict, or dispute are: unconditional election,[31] the covenant of works,[32] the distinction between the visible and the invisible church,[33] assurance,[34] and perseverance of the saints.[35]  Most important for this paper is their general agreement with the New Perspective on justification.[36]  What Ligon Duncan warns against the New Perspective must therefore be warned against the Auburn Avenue Theology: “[It] is productive of dangerous errors… pertaining to our understanding of the nature of the Gospel, the meaning and importance of justification, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and more.”[37] 

Conclusion

The literature associated with the New Perspective on Paul is vast and varied.  The writings of N.T. Wright alone are thick and voluminous.  They include much that is of stimulating interest, not to mention grace and wit.  It would be wrong to assume that any minister who is well-read in the New Perspective is automatically suspect (in which case the present writer would warrant considerable scrutiny).  Among the positive benefits of the New Perspective, I would suggest that the broadening of salvation beyond forensic categories may serve to stretch many traditionally-minded Reformed evangelicals.  Those who have flirted with self-centered and antinomian brands of Christianity will find themselves brutally (and accurately) parodied by the New Perspective.  Duncan writes, “Many evangelicals tout justification as the solution to self-image problems, self-esteem deficits, and emotional neediness, rather than as the solution for God’s righteousness wrath against rebellious sinners.”  In the New Perspective they will be confronted with a reminder that the coming of Christ’s kingdom is indeed first an historic event, by which the end of the ages has come upon us, who are called out from a kingdom of darkness and death into a glorious reign of light and life through the Lord Jesus Christ.  Lastly, the New Perspective helps us to see how unclear so many Christians are about the nature of the “gospel”.  This confusion is to a certain extent revealed and corrected by the New Perspective, but also exploited and advanced.  This reminds pastors and elders carefully and persistently to instruct their flock in the basic claims and essential truths of the Christian faith.

Finally, the New Perspective on justification seeks to address problems that are in reality pastoral rather than theological.  In so doing it sows confusion, both by redefining our traditional theological terminology[38] and by recasting it in a scheme of salvation that is alien to the teaching of the apostles.  Traditional Reformed and evangelical theology, with its strong emphasis on justification through faith alone apart from works, involving forgiveness and the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness to believers, is in fact able to fit wholesomely within the whole tapestry of biblical doctrines.  Paul’s doctrine of justification, as understood by Luther and Calvin and the Westminster divines, not only fits within a well-rounded and fruitful life, but is necessary to it.  Justification, as understood by the Westminster Confession, in no way militates against good works, life transformation, and social involvement.  Indeed, biblically understood, it promotes them all, through a biblically-settled relationship with God, a love for fellow members of God’s family, a hope for the world, and a zeal for the glory of our gracious Savior. 

What we need today is not a new theological perspective born of higher-critical methods and postmodern sensitivities.  We need a new reformation, in which churches and Christians recommit to the God of the Bible, to the doctrines of the Bible, and to a biblical perspective on this present world that is not new but old, expressed through lives that are “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27).[39]

 


[1] J. Ligon Duncan, III., The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, accessed on-line at http://www.christianity.com/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086%7CCHID559376%7CCIID1660662,00.html.

[2] Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 84.

[3] Ibid., 85.

[4] E.P. Sanders, Paul: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford. Univ. Press, 1991), 58.

[5] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 119.

[6] E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).

[7] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 18-19.

[8] Sanders, 75, 420, 544.  Cited from James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul,” in Jesus, Paul and the Law (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 186.

[9] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990), 191, 194.

[10] Ibid., 195.

[11] N.T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 10:440.

[12] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 98.

[13] N.T. Wright, New Perspective on Paul, 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference: 25-28 August 2003, Rutherford House, Edinburgh.  Accessed at www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_New_Perspectives.htm.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Douglas Wilson, “A Pauline Take on the New Perspective,” Credenda/Agenda Vol. 15 No. 5, 12.

[16] On one occasion when I querried a pro-New Perspective professor about Luke 18, he replied that it is illegitimate to use Luke to interpret Paul, a clear indicator on where he and so many other New Perspective scholars stand on biblical interpretation.

[17] A. Andrew Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001), 7.

[18] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 216.

[19] Ibid., 157.

[20] Donald A. Hagner, “The Law in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,” Modern Reformation, Sept/Oct. 2003, 34.

[21] Wilson, 14, 13.

[22] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.17.13

[23] Moo, 211.

[24] Ligon Duncan, in Attraction, makes the related argument that Wright’s emphasis on the social or corporate dimension of justification results in a downplaying of the problem of sin and an underdevelopment of the doctrine of Christ’s atonement.  In general, Wright’s approach to the gospel “moves back from the work of Christ to the person of Christ.”  This traces back to the beginnings of the New Perspective, where Stendahl wrote that Paul had little use for the idea of forgiveness.  See Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, 23-39.

[25] Carl R. Trueman, “The Portrait of Martin Luther in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship: Some Casual Observations,” Lecture delivered at Tyndale Fellowship in Christian Doctrine, 2001, p. 1.

[26] Ligon Duncan, in The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, has suggested that one of the attractions has to do with these increasingly close ties between evangelical and mainstream academics.  N.T. Wright, in particular, “gives them a respectable way of existing in the mainstream NT community, while embracing some of the insights of Sanders, but not his whole approach.”

[27] I presented a lengthy critique of the Federal Vision in seminar form in the Spring of 2004, titled, “Covenant Confusion,” located on-line at http://www.alliancenet.org/partner/Article_Display_Page/0%2C%2CPTID307086%7CCHID559376%7CCIID1787572%2C00.html.

[28] Steve Schlissel, “A New Way of Seeing?” in E. Calvin Beisner, ed., The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, (Ft. Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), p. 26, line 359.  The argument is developed throughout the chapter.

[29] See especially Rich Lusk, “The Tenses of Justification,” accessed on-line at http://www.hornes.org/theologia/content/rich_lusk/the_tenses_of_justification.htm, Oct. 11, 2004; and Rich Lusk, “Future Justification to the Doers of the Law,” accessed on-line at  http://www.hornes.org/theologia/content/rich_lusk/future_justification_to_the_doers_of_the_law.htm, Oct. 11, 2004.

[30] See Steve Wilkins, “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation,” in Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, The Federal Vision (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004), 67, n.15.

[31] For a representative treatment, see Steve Wilkins, “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation,” 56-58.  Wilkins teaches that God elects his people into a conditional covenantal situation.  He writes, “The elect are those who are faithful in Christ Jesus.  If they later reject the Savior, they are no longer elect” (p. 58).  WCF III.6 says “God has appointed the elect unto glory.” 

[32] See Rich Lusk, “A Response to ‘The Biblical Plan of Salvation,’” in in E. Calvin Beisner, ed., The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, 118-148.  Lusk, speaking for the general consensus within the Federal Vision, directly rejects the Westminster Confession’s teaching on this doctrine.

[33] For a nuanced affirmation of this doctrine, see Douglas Wilson, “Reformed” Is Not Enough (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), 69-78; and Douglas Wilson, “The Church: Visible or Invisible,” in The Federal Vision, 263-269.  My own interactions lead me to believe that his affirmation, however critical, is uncommon among the Federal Vision figures.

[34] See Wilkins, “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation,” in E. Calvin Beisner, ed., The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, 261, 267-268.  Wilkins contradicts the teaching of WCF XVIII.1, that says, “such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity… may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”

[35] See Rich Lusk, “New Life and Apostasy: Hebrews 6:4-7 as Test Case,” in Wilkins and Garner, The Federal Vision, 271-290.  In their teaching of John 15 and Hebrews 6:4-6, the Auburn Avenue theologians are united in agreement that a “genuinely saved person” is described as falling away.  This refutes WCF XVII.1.

[36] Douglas Wilson wrote an insightful evaluation of the New Perspective in Credenda/Agenda, Vol. 15 No. 5, which was partly appreciative but generally critical.  On the other extreme is Rich Lusk, who wholly embraces the New Perspective teaching on justification: see footnote 29.  In between these two Federal Vision figures there are varying positions but a strong general tendency in favor of the New Perspective.

[37] Duncan, The Attractions of the New Perspective.

[38] J. V. Fesko has written a helpful article exploring the terminological confusion sown by the New Perspective: “The New Perspective on Paul: Calvin and N.T. Wright,” accessed on-line at http://www.christianity.com/CC/CDA/Content_Blocks/CC_Printer_Friendly_Version_Utility/1,,PTID23682|CHID125467|CIID1538370|CPATHL3BhcnRuZXIvQXJ0aWNsZV9EaXNwbGF5X1BhZ2UvMCwsUFRJRDIzNjgyfENISUQxMjU0Njd8Q0lJRDE1MzgzNzAsMDAuaHRtbA==,00.html, on Oct. 11, 2004.  For a more positive and helpful take on this topic, see Jonathan Barlow, “Levels of Discourse and the New Perspective,” accessed on-line at http://www.christianity.com/CC/CDA/Content_Blocks/CC_Printer_Friendly_Version_Utility/1,,PTID23682|CHID125467|CIID1532882|CPATHL3BhcnRuZXIvQXJ0aWNsZV9EaXNwbGF5X1BhZ2UvMCwsUFRJRDIzNjgyfENISUQxMjU0Njd8Q0lJRDE1MzI4ODIsMDAuaHRtbA==,00.html,  on Oct. 11, 2004.  For a similar critique of the Auburn Avenue Theology, see Joseph A. Pipa, Jr., “Auburn Avenue Theology: An Overview of Critics’ Concerns,” in Beisner, ed. The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, 11-12.

[39] For a thorough on-line archive of related articles, see http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/topic/new_perspective.html.  For book-length treatments, the works listed in this paper will provide a sound brief bibliography.  Important books not cited include many works by Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, along with the following: D.A. Carson, et al, Justification and Variegated Nomism, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001, 2004); Colin G. Kruse, “Paul, the Law, and Justification” (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996; Peter Stuhlmacher, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001); Frank Thielman, The Law and The New Testament (New York: Herder & Herder, 1999); and Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).


© Richard D. Phillips, Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church of Coral Springs, Margate, FL, October 19, 2004.  Reprinted with the author’s permission.

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