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More Concerns about N.T. Wright and the New Perspective(s)

By J. Ligon Duncan III
Divine monergism at work in regeneration and justification has a vital role in sanctification.

PCANews -

I have noted with interest the somewhat histrionic responses to Dr. Kelly’s fine article on the so-called “New Perspective(s) on Paul.” Among other things, Dr. Kelly (who is, incidentally, probably the finest patristics scholar in the PCA and has a linguistic capacity matched by few) has been accused, uncharitably and inaccurately, of misrepresentation regarding the work of N. T. Wright. I have read almost everything that N. T. Wright has ever written, appreciate a great deal of what he has to say, and nevertheless believe that Professor Kelly has put his finger on some very real and serious problems in specific aspects of Wright’s teaching on justification.


Dr. Kelly’s critics seem to assume either that they understand N.T. Wright better than, say, Don Carson (arguably the leading Reformed/evangelical New Testament scholar of our times), or Dick Gaffin, or Sinclair Ferguson, all of whom share Dr. Kelly’s understanding of Wright, as well as his concerns about the critical weaknesses in his views. Or they seem to think that if only these world class scholars really understood Wright, they would either agree with him or else not make such a fuss about his views on justification. None of these assumptions is warranted. Indeed, many leading evangelical New Testament scholars and theologians have read Wright sympathetically and with interest, and understand him all too clearly, and precisely because they understand him share a grave concern over some of his teachings – all the more because of his influence on good men like the brethren who have written into the PCANews defending these weak positions. Donald Macleod, the brilliant Scottish theologian, for instance, renders this considered judgment:


                The modem New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, offers yet another variant on the theme of justification by experience. According to Wright, justification means God’s declaration that we are members of the covenant community. He accepts that in making this declaration God’s only requirement is faith, but rejects old Protestant view that the value of faith lies in the fact that it unites us to Christ and thus makes us partakers of His righteousness. Instead, according to Wright, God takes faith as a sign that the Spirit already at work in us and that we are already members of the covenant people. It demonstrates that we have a new, penitent heart; and God, seeing saving grace already at work, justifies us.


For all its laboured originality, this theory completely fails to escape the gravitational pull of the religion of self-justification. Wright’s basic thrust is that justification is no legal fiction: the believer is righteous. This righteousness may be the result of grace and of the Spirit’s work within us, but when all is said and done it is our own personal righteousness. It is inherent, not imputed. We asked to stand on the rock of our own covenant-keeping. Could that have given Martin Luther peace? Could it give any of us peace? On the contrary, our hope would ebb and flow with every rise and fall in the tide of our personal spirituality (A Faith to Live By, Mentor, 2002, pages 166-167).


Indeed, it is fair to say that the leading evangelical and Reformed scholars of our time (men who believe in biblical inerrancy and the Pauline authorship of all the New Testament books attributed to Paul – unlike N.T. Wright), think that the reformational exegesis of Paul on justification (while not beyond improvement) is better (that is, more biblical) than any of the various “new perspective” approaches. And furthermore, they believe that the errors promoted by Wright regarding justification, consistently embraced, undermine the gospel. It is also interesting to note that one of the major mainstream academic proponents of the new perspective has recently begun acknowledging in graduate seminars at Duke that Wright’s version of the new perspective “is not working as a reliable interpretive or explanatory framework for Paul.”


There are, no doubt, a very few men in the PCA who would suggest that one may embrace much of Wright’s view and lose nothing regarding justification that is vital. This is patently impossible by any historic Protestant and evangelical standard. Wright’s view necessitates the loss of the doctrines of imputation, the active obedience of Christ, the extrinsic ground of justification, and faith as the alone instrument of justification (to mention only a few). In other words, sola fide is mangled beyond recognition in Wright’s paradigm. To commend it as benign is the height of naivete. Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as set forth in the Westminster Confession 11, is a non-negotiable in the PCA. For a Protestant pastor to want to “re-think” the core of the Reformation’s exposition of the Scripture’s teaching on justification, is like (to borrow an analogy) “a plumber who wants to re-think pipes.”


In connection with this it is important to note that a hallmark of the Reformed doctrine of the Christian life is that it highlights not only the imperatives, but also the great indicatives, and features not only the subjective work of the Holy Spirit in us but the objective work of God for us. It does so precisely because it believes (on exegetical grounds) that the divine monergism at work in regeneration and justification has a vital role still to play in sanctification. Sanctification, too, is by grace.


This emphasis, counter-balancing some aspects of what we might call a more fundamentalistic view of sanctification, is evident in many quarters of the PCA today, coming from many streams. Whether it is Tim Keller, Michael Horton, Bryan Chapell, Sinclair Ferguson, Skip Ryan, John Piper, Scotty Smith, Jerry Bridges, Paul Kooistra or the Sonship curriculum – there is a prevalent emphasis on the grace of God in justification and sanctification. That tendency should not be missed or unappreciated, even if we would want to put it slightly differently sometimes.


Now, understand clearly, if the systematic view of N.T. Wright on the Pauline doctrine of justification is correct, the exegetical grounds for this above-mentioned theological emphasis on grace are eviscerated. Why? Because this view of sanctification is inextricably tied to the historic Protestant doctrine of justification. This fact alone indicates that the risks are very high indeed in this discussion. Brethren who act surprised at strong responses from those who express these kinds of concerns about the teaching of N.T. Wright have not adequately considered the implications of the overall position and are not sufficiently sensitized to the pastoral and theological stakes of the discussion.


Now for those who are utterly lost in this debate, never having heard of “the New Perspective(s)” or N. T. Wright, let me offer the following. For around twenty years now, a “new” approach to reading Paul’s polemics with Judaism has been making waves in the field of New Testament studies, and gradually making inroads into evangelical circles. Actually, there is not just one approach but a group of approaches that are part of this movement.


The ground-breaking work of E.P. Sanders (formerly Dean Ireland’s Professor of Exegesis, Oxford, and now Professor in the Divinity faculty at Duke) in the area of Palestinian Judaism (and its relation to Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings) prepared the way for this new resuscitation of some familiar approaches to interpreting Paul’s thought. British New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn (of Durham University) coined the term “the new perspective on Paul” (in his famous Manson Memorial lecture) and elaborated some ideas popular among various students of Paul in the post-holocaust era of New Testament studies (among them, Krister Stendahl).


But it is N.T. Wright (a prolific author and effective communicator, who is now Bishop of Durham [Church of England], and was formerly dean of Litchfield Cathedral, England, as well as former Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey), who has most prominently contributed to the propagation of this view in the evangelical arena.


At the heart of the new perspectives’ critique of both Protestant and Catholic interpretations of Paul is the charge that Reformation-era theologians read Paul via a medieval framework that obscured the categories of first-century Judaism, resulting in a complete misunderstanding of his teaching on justification. Protestant ideas of “the righteousness of God,” “imputation,” and even the definition of justification itself – all these have been invented or misunderstood by the Lutheran and Catholic traditions of interpretation.


In a nutshell, the new perspective (as set forth by Wright) suggests that: (1) the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a religion of self-righteousness that taught salvation by merit; (2) Paul’s argument with the Judaizers was not about a “works-righteousness” view of salvation, over against the Christian view of salvation by grace; (3) Instead, Paul’s concern was for the status of Gentiles in the church; (4) So justification is more about ecclesiology than soteriology, more about who is part of the covenant community and what are its boundary markers than about how a person stands before God.


Thus the new perspective on Paul purports to help us (1) better understand Paul and the early church in their original context, (2) vindicate Paul and early Christianity from the charge of anti-Semitism; (3) slip the Gordian knot of theological impasse between Catholic and Protestant interpreters of Paul; and (4) articulate an understanding of justification that has inherent social dimensions and thus secure a better theological foundation for social justice and ecumenism among evangelical interpreters of the Scriptures; among other things.


So where does a busy pastor or church officer, who wants to know what’s going on but who doesn’t want to read thirteen books on something that’s not going to turn into a sermon or a Sunday School lesson, go? Let me suggest the following materials available via the internet at “The Paul Page” (a very one-sided and pro-New Perspective site)  or, better, at the Web site of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (and look under articles for Kim Riddlebarger’s useful critique of the New Perspective) or visit the “Third Millenium Ministries” Web site (operated by RTS/Orlando Professor Richard Pratt) and read Chuck Hill’s and Reggie Kidd’s measured and helpful criticisms and descriptions of the New Perspective The articles listed below can all be found via one of these three sites.


Justified Hesitation? J.D.G. Dunn vs. the Protestant Doctrine of Justification by Lee Gatiss.

A very helpful article from the editor of The Theologian. Gatiss exposes significant gaps in James D.G. Dunn’s knowledge of historical theology, flaws in his argument and exegesis, and even his unfamiliarity with the writings and views of Martin Luther on justification and Israel.


A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul by Mark M. Mattison.

Mattison is an unabashed fan of the new perspective. He offers a helpful, if giddy, introduction to its history, agenda, and themes.


Reformed Confessionalism and the “New Perspective” on Paul by Kim Riddlebarger. This essay, by a friend of Michael Horton, is posted on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals Web site. It comes at the New Perspective from the standpoint of Reformed orthodoxy. Very good.


For some of you, a passing, brief, second-hand account of the new perspective may not suffice. You may want to read a presentation of the new perspective from its most articulate advocate and then read an intelligent response from a scholar of equal standing. If so, then you’ll want to read the following books.


What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1997, is a short, popular summary of the new perspective (and more) by the chief advocate of this new approach, N.T. Wright


Revisiting Paul's Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective by Peter Stuhlmacher and Donald Hagner (IVP), 2001, is relatively new. These lectures (given at Beeson Divinity School a few years ago, and appended with an article by Hagner) give a strong, if incomplete, critique of the New Perspective by two recognized New Testament scholars


Counted Righteous in Christ by John Piper (Crossway), 2003. Piper, a pastor and first-rate New Testament scholar shows that if you lose imputation (a doctrine for which Wright explicitly denies there is any canonical grounding) you lose justification by faith. Piper is moving more and more to a classical covenant theology in his soteriology.


I have a larger bibliography available on these themes that will be made available in the next two weeks in connection with a paper that I have produced on the subject. I will send it to the PCANews when it is readied.


TE J. Ligon Duncan III is senior minister of First Presbyterian Church (PCA), Jackson, Mississippi and adjunct professor of Reformed Theological Seminary. 


For more articles like this go to PCANewsPCANews .



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