(A) Reformed View of the New Perspective

(A) Reformed View of the New Perspective April 18, 2012

The clash was inevitable, but the clash has too often taken place under terms and categories that unfairly describe the other side. The traditionally Reformed have a stake in framing Paul’s gospel as justification by faith, and behind that they traditionally understand the problem to be humans who strive to establish themselves before God. A good proponent of this view, always framed in pastorally sensitive ways, is Tim Keller. But the New Perspective says No to this way of framing Paul’s gospel.

Why do you think the Reformed view of justification clashes so much with the new perspective on Paul, especially its view(s) of justification? What’s the essence of the clash?

First, that view assumes a view of Judaism that has clearly been undermined: Judaism was not full of self-righteous people seeking to establish themselves on the basis of the Law before God. Instead, one good way of describing Judaism is what E.P. Sanders called “covenantal nomism.” Covenant, and that means grace and election, have the first word and the Law (the nomism bit) is not how to become a Jew but how to maintain ones Jewishness, or sustain one’s relationship to the God of Israel. In effect, this knocks the former problem out from under one traditional view and sends people back to the NT and Judaism to see “what the problem was.”

In steps Alan J. Spence, in his book Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed, to say the New Perspective (1) gets it all wrong and (2) is designed to create a gospel shaped apart from what I’m calling Spence’s “justification worldview,” a worldview in which God is judge, humans are sinners, and Christ establishes as relationally right with God.

Spence got off for me on the wrong foot in five ways: first, he misspelled E.P. Sanders’ name wrong every time, spelling it “Saunders.” He also called him “E.T.” Saunders, and this makes me wonder if he has even read Sanders. One should avoid speculating on such things, so I won’t. (Maybe I already have.) Second, he kept seeing Sanders in terms of comparative religion and, well, yes, Sanders does talk about comparing the pattern of religion, but to say he’s into comparative religion pulls Sanders from the historian to the modern religions expert. Just not so. Third, he failed to sketch that the fundamental insight of Sanders and of the whole New Perspective is a fresh re-examination of Judaism and that means, inevitably, what Paul was saying in the context of a sharper profile of Judaism. I see absolutely no interest in Spence in this historical question.

Fourth, Spence shows no awareness of the nuances of variation among New Perspective scholars — from Sanders to Wright to Dunn to Hays and others. For Spence, this is all about Tom Wright’s denial of his justification worldview, and this chp is dramatically different in tone from his chps on Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin and is more like — but stronger — than the chps on Schleiermacher and Barth. He blames the latter two for deconstructing a justification worldview, and thinks Wright is floating on that deconstruction. Fifth, he says he will root his sketch of Tom’s view of justification in his What Saint Paul Really Said, in spite of the 2009 book called Justification, which ought to have been the place to base one’s observations, but I’ll forgive him for not living up to what he said: it’s just as much based on the 2009 book as the earlier one, though I don’t think he sees the nuances of the latter vs. the former.

Spence sketches Wright’s narrative, which is the narrative of Israel’s Story coming to fulfillment in Jesus, the true Israelite; he argues Wright’s view of justification is not about salvation but about ecclesiology (this is an overstatement); he doesn’t think there’s enough about forensics, in spite of Tom’s clear statements to the contrary though Wright doesn’t have Spence’s justification worldview; and he thinks Wright doesn’t have enough on faith as instrumental in salvation. Well, here’s a good summary of Spence’s criticisms:

I suggest the controlling motif of Wright’s soteriology is ‘the reinstatement of good governance through the kingship of Jesus’ or, in the evocative jargon of the comparative study of religions, ‘messianic nomism’. [Who uses this expression?] If one removed from his exposition of justification the few passing references to relational concepts such as grace, mercy, pardon and reconciliation [did he read Justification?], the structure would stand intact. None of these concepts serve as load-bearing terms. They are, however, integral features of Paul’s soteriology.

One could at this point stop for a long day discussing how Wright expounds grace and these other terms, and to ask if the proper approach is “The Western Tradition’s” view vs. recent NT scholarship’s view, and how one determines such things — surely by exegesis and history not by appealing to Augustine and Luther and Calvin – but I find this summary critique both hitting on the sensitive areas but grossly misrepresenting Wright’s stuff. But I’m sketching Spence, who says Tom’s use of those terms was only done in deference to others, the way Spence himself crossed himself in a Catholic school as a boy though he was Reformed.

In essence, Spence thinks the best Story of the Old Testament must be only the personal salvation story because the governance Story of Wright, by which he means Jesus as King as the true Israelite through whom God will put the world to rights …. and, well, we’ve got an exaggeration: Tom Wright believes in personal salvation; he thinks the NT teaches that; but personal is caught up in the larger Story. What Spence has is a theory of justification that no one in the Old Testament taught (unless one thinks Gen 15:6 is Abraham’s personal salvation), for which there would have been no back story in the New Testament and which is then assumed to be the true gospel of the apostle Paul.

The New Perspective’s view of justification deserves some good strong pushback; there have been some early overstatements and many take backs, including some by Dunn and Wright.  I wonder if Spence might spend some time reading Jimmy Dunn’s big pumpkin book, his book on Paul’s theology, and read the chp on justification, and then ask if he has really sketched the new perspective’s view of justification. He hasn’t.

This Guide for the Perplexed will make some folks happy; it leaves me perplexed.

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