The Pope, Justification, the New Perspective and Paul

Pope.jpgA couple year’s back Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom co-authored a book with a spiffy little question for a title: Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism
. They marshalled evidence to suggest the Reformation had had a powerful impact and the Roman Catholic (evangelical types) and Protestant Evangelicals now had huge connections where there was once massive fissures.

If this sketch is accurate to what the Pope says, two questions: (1) is he old or new perspective? (2) is the Reformation over?

Now the Pope, Benedict XVI, has a book that illustrates this all the more: Saint Paul
. I want to illustrate this connection by briefly sketching the Pope’s view of justification, and his view reveals dramatic connections to the New Perspective as well as to classic (old perspective) Reformation teaching on justification. Now for the sketch, drawn from chp 13 of this fine introduction to Pauline theology:

1. The issues are framed in terms of individual (if not gender inclusive) salvation, as in the old perspective: “How does man become just in God’s eyes?” (78).

2. Paul’s conversion, as esp emphasized in the new perspective, reshaped his view of the relationship of an Israelite to the Torah. This Torah, as in new perspective, is the 5 books of Moses (and not the law principle). In light of Christ, there is an opposition of Law and Grace, as in the old perspective.

3. The focus at the time of the Paul, as we find in the new perspective, is on those works — like Sabbath and circumcision — that built a wall between Jews and Gentiles. Those works had framed “a social, cultural and religious identity” (81). The wall “consisted precisely in the Judaic observances and prescriptions” (81).

4. With Christ the God of Israel became the God of all people, and this meant the wall had been knocked down. This ecclesial emphasis is decidedly new perspective.

5. Union with Christ, faith in Christ — and here old and new, Lutheran and Catholic become one — in fact, Christ himself, “makes us just” (82). “For this reason, Luther’s phrase “faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love” (82). Here he shows how Christ is love, union with Christ puts us into the life of love, and all good works are works that flow from this Christ who is love and makes all good works works of love. [There’s nothing here about double imputation, a move that connects the Pope more to the new perspective and not at all to the strident voices today who make justification little more than double imputation. Strike that slightly: on p. 84, when introducing the next chp, he speaks of God conferring his justice upon a person, uniting him to Christ — getting closer to imputation.]

6. So what is faith? “Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life” (82). The form of Christ’s life is love. Our actions are insignificant; what matters is faith; genuine faith becomes love. Thus, Gal 5:6, where Paul speaks of circumcision not mattering but only faith working through love. On p. 85 he anchors this in the perichoresis. Thus, Paul and James belong together: “faith that is active in love testifies to the freely given gift of justification in Christ” (86).

“We become just by entering into communion with Christ, who is Love” (82).

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  • Frank OHara

    Galatians 5:6 about circumcision not mattering is often misunderstood because it is taken out of context. Circumcision does matter because it is a symbolic rejection of Christ.
    Paul was speaking to a mixed group, some that were circumcisied and some that were not. His statement was one of inclusiveness. He was saying that if you are circumcised or if you were not, you were accepted but he also said in Galatians 5:2 that circumcision was a symbolic rejection of Christ. Once offered inclusion into the new Christianity movement, to circumcise yourself was a symbolic rejection of the offer and thus a symbolic rejection of Christ.
    Circumcision was the one thing that would have brought the nacent Christianity movement down in those days. Christ was against circumcision because he knew the implications. The Pharisees thought they had cut the head off of the movement when they had Christ crucified but the disciples showed that the Pharisees had only created a martyr and that the disciples would keep the movement going. To finally bring an end to the Christianity movement, the disciples had to be converted. The Pharisees offered to accept the disciples into Judaism but it came with a caveat. They had to submit to circumcision. The disciples considered the offer at the Council of Jerusalem and rejected it. They knew that if they accepted the offer, all recorded history of Christ would be destroyed and we would know nothing of Christ and his teachings soon. Paul quickly began teaching this as evidenced in Galatians 5:2 when he said “Mark my words! I Paul tell you that if you circumcise yourself Christ will be of no value to you at all.” He was telling us that circumcision was a symbolic rejection of Christ.
    Americans and others have little understanding of the importance of this pivitotal juncture in our history but if Paul and the disciples had not understood, there would be no Christians today. Chistianity would have died long ago.

  • T

    Maybe this is what the OPP is upset about: Wright may be more Catholic than the Pope! 🙂
    In seriousness, I think this is a great, great time for the Church and the world. I have some hesitation about saying “the Reformation is over” because of the lack of “always reforming” it could imply. But, essentially, yes, to the extent the Reformation was a war, the war is over. Now it’s a discussion between friends and brothers.

  • This is a fascinating journey. If Luther was right to “protest” the errors of the Roman Catholic Church regarding “meritorious righteousness” with all of its unbiblical features in the 16th century, and if NT Wright and the NPP show that Paul was not anti-Catholic as disguised in a misunderstanding of 1st century Judaism, then we are indeed sitting at a more friendly table for Protestant-Catholic dialogue.

  • Kenton

    Is this the first post of a series? As big as this sounds and as cool as this sounds, it seems like it should be.

  • BenB

    It appears that the Pope has just written a book espousing nearly everything I’ve come to believe about Paul after reading Wright and Dunn, and comparing it to the OPP, and then reading Romans. I have really enjoyed this.
    On the other hand…
    What do you think of Francis Watson’s critique of the NPP? I know that Ben Witherington has blogged about it and has a section about it in his forthcoming book. He seems to agree with Watson. I haven’t seen a lot of talk from the NPPers dealing with this critique which is different than both Piper/Neo-Reformed, and Douglas Moo.

  • Patrick

    #3 John, yes certainly we are at a much more friendly table. I’ve had the privilege of being part of a dialogue group and one of the topics with the Joint Lutheran-Catholic Declaration on Justification. We found huge areas of agreement, but in answer to Scot’s question, no I wouldn’t say the Reformation is over.
    There is a bit of irony here too I think? – that as the NPP challenges traditional Lutheran reading of justification, the Catholic Church more and more is recognising that Luther was right on ‘faith alone’ (as the Pope says above).

  • Scot McKnight

    I read a very good, if a little cynical, piece by Watson on the nature of Luther’s critique of Judaism that pushed hard against the typical “Luther depicted Jews as Roman Catholics” stuff. But I haven’t see much beyond that.
    What is the piece?
    Good point, if irony is clear. The problem is that the NPP agrees with Luther on “faith alone” and in fact the NPP agrees with all the solas. The NPP is fundamentally driven by an approach to Paul that emerges out of Judaism, and in particular the Judaism we have come to know as a result of the Dead Sea Scrolls and our increased sensitivity to caricature of Judaism in the wake of the Holocaust. It is not driven by an Augustinian anthropology, which is how much of the Reformed tradition approaches Paul (of course, yes, indeed, they see the Augustinian stuff in Romans itself).
    So the alignment at times with RCC may be driven by RCC shifts too.

  • Jon

    Frank @ #1: If circumcision is a rejection of Christ, why did Paul require Timothy to be circumcised after writing the book of Galatians (i assume an early date for Galatians)?

  • Scot,
    If this is the same book I saw in Barnes & Noble a few weeks back, it left me wanting a good bit more from the Pope before I can really tell what his views are on Justification. On such a (biblically and historically) important topic, I just need more than 3 or 4 pages to feel confident I know the Pope’s view. But I was excited to see the Pope writing on the topic at all. Thanks for this.

  • Phil Atley

    Benedict is not saying that Luther was right about justification by faith alone. He noted that faith must be understood as faith formed in love, which faith arises from knowing Jesus. If Luther’s “faith alone” is understood as “fides nuda,” sharply distinct from “sanctifying Christian living,” then Catholics do not agree. But Benedict’s point is that Lutherans today reject a “fides nuda” (for justification) independent of a sanctifying life of love of God and neighbor. At the same time, Catholics are no longer afraid of the “faith alone” language, as long as it is understood as fides caritate formata–since “faith without works is dead.”
    The agreement on justification a few years ago depended on both Protestants and Catholics carefully qualifying what they mean by key terms. It was not simply an acceptance of the other’s 16th-century positions, where most Protestants sharply distinguished sanctification from justification.
    To say without qualification that Benedict accepts Luther’s faith alone language is misleading, since Benedict immediately expained exactly what he meant by “faith.”

  • John Mark Inman

    I think I read this chapter at Border’s a few weeks back. Would eventually like to read the whole book. I realize faith works through love, but it seemed like the Pope was making them equivalent, to the point where there doesn’t seem to be a conversion moment where the believer is justified, but only an ongoing life of faith/love.
    Not sure exactly how to say that. But that’s the impression I got.

  • Phil Atley

    Mr. Inman,
    The idea of justification as a finished state distinct from sanctification was an innovation at the time of the Reformation, so, no, the pope does not believe in that. But conversion is everywhere in Catholic soteriology. If one has sinned against God one needs to con-vert, turn around, repent, admit it, be reconciled. Life is one long conversion. The specific way “justification” was used in the 16th century is what causes the problem. You seem to be using it in the 16th-century way and for you “conversion” seems to mean “justification” in the 16th-century manner.
    If one, as a Protestant, is willing to see sanctification and justification as interrelated, not sequential, then Catholic and Protestant views converge and that’s where Benedict is coming from and where the agreed statement of several years ago is coming from–Lutherans recombining sanctification and justification, Catholics warming up to “sola fide” if fides is understood as “formed in love.”
    But if one, in a neo-Reformation framework, believes it necessary to maintain a two-step approach with (1) justification (sola fide non caritate formata) and (2) sanctification (or regeneration) formed in love, then there’s little convergence. The more strictly neo-Reformation Lutherans were very much uneasy with the agreed statement on justification and some Catholic theologians likewise thought that it too easily papered over distinctions made back then that are still operative today, hence that it was a bit of a “cheap grace” kind of ecumenism.
    Benedict is stretching as far as he can, offering “sola fide” as a term Catholics can embrace, but he can’t go so far as to think of the faith as fides nuda. And a lot of Lutherans claim that Luther did not believe in a fides nuda. That’s the problem–just what is the proper interpretation of Paul, of Luther?

  • Peter

    This is fascinating. I had a conversion experience 26 years ago after which I left my Roman Catholic roots (since then I’ve learned that it’s actually proverbial in this part of the country, “Oh, another nice Irish Catholic boy went and got born again”) for pentecostalism and have wandered through different branches of evangelicalism ever since, now probably aptly described as a reforming fundamentalist. Slowly over the years I have grown to appreciate 1) the significant foundation that I received in 16 years of Catholic education, 2) the organic (ie., not merely intellectual) nature of conversion and growth in Christ, and 3) finally seeing more and more how much of the “normal Christian life” (as I understand it) can never happen in the life of most evangelicals who refuse to be informed by Rome or Orthodoxy. I’m reading “Inhabiting the Cruciform God” by Michael Gorman; it is so thrilling to see how he seems to define “saving faith,” (my words, not his) and how it relates to this discussion. I did not know the meaning of fides nuda, so I googled it and came to a RC website discussion of the Council of Trent. I do find the author’s explanation satisfying that my (NPP-influenced) understanding of justification does not conflict after all with the Council of Trent. Amazing.

  • Bruce Russell

    Yippee, all Rome has to do is get rid of the priesthood, veneration of saints, confession, indulgences, and the pope and I could become a member.

  • John M.

    I enjoy doctrinal nuance, but when we stand before God at the final judgment, He is not going to ask us to articulate our church’s statement of faith regarding the atonement; He’s not going to inquire as to whether we’re “Protestant”, “Roman Catholic” or “Orthodox”. He won’t be concerned as to whether we are “old perspective” or “new perspective” regarding our understanding of Paul. He won’t even quiz us to see if we can quote particular scriptural proof texts. He will simply look at our hearts to see if we sincerely trusted in the death of His Son for our salvation; whether we loved Jesus and did our best to follow Him through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

  • If the reformation being over means people finally realizing just how inherently anti-Christian the notion of schism really is and a concerted effort on the part of all to reconcile 1500 years of wounds to the Body of the Bride of Christ, then I’m all for it.
    It is time for us all to come home, whatever that looks like when we’re done. It is time to put unity above purity of theology and to humbly be willing to all admit that none of us have a perfect understanding of The Way.
    It is time to live real love by being willing to sit side by side and worship next to someone we might think is a heretic.

  • BenB

    Sorry it took me a little while to get back to you. I figured I’d go do the research for you instead of making you go looking around for things.
    Watson wrote a paper entitled “Not the New Perspective” in which he gives a rather cynical critique of the NPP. It was presented at Duke Divinity School. It can be found here:
    He has also written a work on Romans 1-4 called “Constructing a Hermeneutic: A Rereading of Romans 1-4” which can be found at The Paul Page by searching that title (It’s a WORD document so I can’t get a link).
    Apparently his “Hermeneutic of Faith” and reworking of his doctoral dissertation “Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles” are all conversant with the NPP, yet quite critical as well. It seems Ben Witherington has given him some praise for his work, and intends to bring some of the same criticisms in his upcoming work on New Testament Theology.
    I have only been able to read the three papers available at the Paul Page. I have to read his work on Romans 1-4 a couple more times before I develop a real opinion.
    I was just curious if you had read much or had an opinion on this quite different critique. It just seems that this critique has gone unnoticed so far.

  • Chris Zoephel

    In all of this, a big point has been missed. The RC understanding and role of the sacraments in connection with justification and sanctification. That issue has not changed and must be dealt with. For example,
    What is baptism? Is it regenerative?
    What is the Mass? What is it’s role in justification and sanctification? etc….
    These, to me, are important and essential issues in this discussion because these are real ethos giving events and practices that highly influence the life and faith of a practicing Catholic.

  • Chris Zoephel,
    Many of your questions are answered at this site:
    “The Catholic Perspective on Paul”
    I’d encourage you to check it out.