September 24, 2018

A new study by Matthew J. Thomas called Paul’s ‘Works of the Law’ in the Perspective of Second Century Reception, an expensive published PhD in the academic WUNT series, contends that analysis of the major texts of the 2d Century leads to a singular conclusion: the “new” perspective is earlier than the “old” perspective, and he calls this 2d Century view the “earlier” perspective. The book should be in every theological library.

Thomas is not providing some comprehensive endorsement of the new perspective and neither is this book simply a piece of polemics. Rather it is a patient examination 2d Century evidence with contemporary questions in mind.

What were the 2d Century texts talking about with works of the law?

This early conception of works of the law can be summarized as follows. The law in question is the Mosaic law, which was delivered to the hard-hearted nation of Israel following the apostasy at Sinai. The principal works of this law that come into focus are circumcision, Sabbath and other Jewish calendar observances (such as new moons, feasts and fasts), sacrifices, and laws regarding food, with a focus on the temple and Jerusalem occasionally noted as well. The practices of the Mosaic law are consistently distinguished from good works more broadly, whether these be the natural and universal pious deeds that were performed by Abraham and the righteous patriarchs, the works of the Decalogue, the acts of mercy enjoined by the prophets, or the commandments of Christ and works of his covenant, such as baptism and keeping the Lord’s day.

And these conclusions lead to the rather important conclusion about works of the law as a form of connecting with the people of Israel/Jews/Judaism.

The practice of these works signifies identification with the Jewish people, the Jewish covenant, and “Judaism,” the manner of life and worship prescribed in the Mosaic law. The Jewish nation, covenant and praxis are so closely linked that each can stand as a synecdoche for the others; to be a part of this nation means to be a member of their covenant, and to live and worship according to its dictates. The practice of these works also represents a corresponding move of separation from the Gentile nations. These works are practiced because salvation is believed to be tied in with the election of the Jewish people, which one enters by observing the Jewish law. From a Christian salvation-historical perspective, it can also be said that practicing these works identifies one with the period before Christ’s advent, and with the juvenile and hard-hearted condition of humanity before its renewal by Christ.

Here is his conclusion on which perspective more closely aligns with the 2d Century evidence, and it is so important to repeat what is often ignored — namely, the “new” perspective is actually new perspectives and not a singular perspective in which the principal thinkers agree all the way down.

In summary, the early perspectives on works of the law are found to align far more closely with the so-called “new” perspective than the “old” perspective, particularly with respect to the meaning and significance of these works. On these issues, the alignment between early and new perspectives is such that one can regard the “new” perspective as, in reality, the old perspective, while what we identify as the “old” perspective represents a genuine theological novum in relation to the early Christian tradition.

Now to the differences:

However, this close alignment does not hold on the question of why these works are opposed, as the distinctive emphases of Sanders and Dunn find little patristic support, and only Wright’s reasoning carries substantial correspondence among these early sources. Moreover, it is noteworthy that, notwithstanding his occasionally undiplomatic language, it is Wright who does the most among new perspective authors to incorporate old perspective concerns in his arguments, particularly with respect to Torah’s inability to address the underlying issue of human sinfulness. If an “old perspective” adherent – perhaps more likely from the Reformed than the Lutheran tradition – finds Wright’s arguments to sufficiently account for the underlying anthropological reasons why works of the law cannot justify, then they are likely to be satisfied with early perspective reasoning on this issue as well.

Thomas offers some observations on how this early perspective fits with Paul’s own letters, and his conclusion is profoundly salvation-historical or apocalyptic (depends who is talking), namely, that in Christ all things are new.

First, these sources would suggest that in rejecting the works of the law, Paul’s focus is on the concrete issue of the place of the Torah in the Christian’s life, and not on broader questions of obedience to a moral law or concerns about works in general.

Second, in light of the early patristic testimony, it appears that Paul’s rejection of the works of the law was not original to him. … Rather, it appears that Paul is responding to the law of Christ that is held in common with the other apostles, and though his apostleship means that he indeed acts as a steward of this law, it is Christ who redefines and intensifies, not Paul.

This leads to the third point. A major theme in this study is that the early patristic sources frequently make reference, whether directly or indirectly, to the law of Christ as a primary reason why these works of the Mosaic law are no longer binding. … Rather than being rejected because of Paul’s experiences or their exclusive social function, these works represent the major points of discontinuity between Moses’ law in the old covenant and Christ’s law in the new, and thus naturally recur as flashpoints in contexts where the validity of one dispensation or the other is in question.

Finally, these early perspectives would suggest that while these works are indeed flashpoints, the conflicts over works of the law are not, at heart, about works of the Mosaic law at all, but rather about the identity of Jesus as the Messiah.

August 10, 2018

Everything You Need to Know About the New Perspective in 30 Minutes(Rebroadcast) – KR 101

Want to ask Scot a question for the next podcast? Record your question here >>…r-your-questions/

Have you ever wondered how the new perspective came to be and the implications it has for the Church?

In this episode, Dr. Scot McKnight tackles the big questions of what is the new perspective on Paul? Why was it necessary to have a “new” perspective? Who are the main scholars leading the way for the new perspective? This episode also unpacks the implications that the new perspective has on the Church and the Christian life.

Books and Authors mentioned by Dr. Scot McKnight:

The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications Edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica –

Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays by Krister Stendahl –

Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion by E.P. Sanders –

The New Perspective on Paul by James Dunn –

Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright –

The best way to support “Kingdom Roots with Scot McKnight” is to write us an iTunes review and subscribe to us on iTunes. Click here >>…d1078739516?mt=2 << and then press the blue “View in iTunes” button to write the review.

Learn more about Northern Seminary’s Master of Arts in New Testament at

September 29, 2017

This interview of me comes from The Overthinking Christian website, and I thank Paul Moldovan for the freedom to repost it here. [SMcK: My favorite book on the New Perspective.]

1) You have noted elsewhere that you were there during the formation of the NPP. How was this experience? Do you remember your initial reaction to the ideas proposed, and have you grown since then?

The singular moment, which crystallized the NPP, was the publication in 1977 of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. While he had predecessors advocating some of his central ideas – GF Moore, K Stendahl, in some ways WD Davies – what Sanders argued was that Judaism was not a works righteousness religion, was not a religion that had fallen into corruption at the time of Jesus, was not a religion in need of retrieving the prophetic tradition since the legal and halakhic tradition had eclipsed the relational elements of the Bible’s or Judaism’s relational core with God.

When Sanders argued this some major planks in what came to be called the “old” perspective snapped. This is where it all began, and I was there when James D.G. (Jimmy) Dunn took Sanders’ work on Judaism as a covenant-based and grace-based religion and reworked how Paul was to be understood. If Paul was not opposing works righteousness, what was he opposing?

Dunn argued in our New Testament Seminar that Paul opposed not Judaism per se but Christian Jews who wanted to impose “works of the law” on gentile converts. Hence, works of the law for Dunn (and Wright followed him on this score) was not the law in general or works righteousness in particular, but works of the law that symbolized adherence to specific halakhic requirements to be fully included among Jews.

The days were heady; we knew we were in on a major breakthrough and grateful to be connected to Jimmy Dunn. I regret only that I was doing Matthew and not Paul studies.

When I read Sanders front to back as part of my investigation of Jewish missionary activity I was compelled to agree not only by Sanders’ or Dunn’s arguments but because, at the same time, I read the OT apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings, all the published Dead Sea Scrolls, and huge chunks of the rabbinical writings. What I saw there made me a true NPP believer.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      2) A lot of ink has been spilled over the “faith in Christ” vs “faithfulness of Christ” debate. What are your own thoughts on this conversation? For orthopraxy, does it matter at all if Paul meant “faith” or “faithfulness,” or do you find the implications to be minute?

First, I’ve never made this a special academic study though I have touched upon all the pertinent Pauline texts and have read some of the scholarship. Second, the issue is simply unimportant when it comes to orthodoxy or orthopraxy. The irony for me is that those who are most convinced of the “active obedience” of Christ to the law’s requirements, a singularly reformed theme so far as I know, seem most opposed to the faithfulness of Christ. The irony is that their theology ought to like this view.

Second at times in Pauline texts I sense that interpretation is most compelling while I don’t think it is wise to get too certain on this one: one can’t, after all, reduce a genitive case (“of Christ”) to certainty. (One can, of course, but those who do know too much.) E.g., Galatians 2:15–21 can be, so I now think, explained slightly better with the subjective (faithfulness of Christ) than the objective.

Third, at times I sense some want a subjective view simply because the objective view is what evangelicals or the conservatively Reformed believe. In other words, it’s tribal at times. It shouldn’t be, and the best example of this is Dunn himself.

3) Many Christian leaders are publicly and loudly denouncing the New Perspective as heretical. Why do you think the backlash has been so strong? At the same time, why do you think aspects of the New Perspective are gaining so much traction in some circles?

To those Christian leaders I ask, “Have you read Sanders cover to cover?” and the chaser is this: “Have you read the Jewish sources?” Then I want to press the case farther, but my experience is that almost none of the strident (other than DA Carson) have read Sanders and the Jewish sources.

I don’t know who is calling this a heresy but it is tragic. When the NPP folks are the enemy we’ve missed the evils of this world entirely.

Now here’s the biggest problem: most of these critics are relentlessly unforgiving of Jewish sources when it comes to the themes of works and rewards and the final judgment but are entirely forgiving of Jesus – who speaks of rewards quite often, and one cannot speak of rewards without their being some sort of merit at work in the logic – and of Paul – who himself often enough speaks of judgment on the basis of (not faith) but works. My point is this: these scholars immediately have a more grace-based theology that explains the non-saving theme of works and reward but make no attempt to understand Judaism’s texts on the basis of grace and covenant.

Now enter John Barclay, Paul and the Gift, or Gary Anderson’s Sin: A History, and – as my high school basketball coach often said – “the jig is up.” Game over. Sanders made the point, Anderson made the point, and Barclay made the point: Judaism deserves to be explained as a covenant-based and grace-based religion. Yes, of course, and many times of course, grace in Judaism and in Christianity is not identical.

Now add Jesus’ demand of obedience and discipleship and factor in Matthew Bates’ theme of allegiance as at the heart of what “faith” means and one is very close finally to admitting that Judaism and Christianity do differ dramatically, but the core of that disagreement is over the status of Jesus as Messiah not soteriological elements. By that I mean both are rooted in divine election and grace and covenant and faith and obedience.

As to why some elements are gaining traction: #1, #2, and #3 is NT Wright’s compelling writings. I’ve heard some people say they are “new perspective” after reading Wright and have no idea what it even means. Wright is an example of a NT scholar who writes compelling prose with lilt and tilt in his prose. I can think of no old perspective scholar with that kind of prose and that kind of capacity to compel.

But having said that it may well be just what happened to make it appear on the scene: a deeper appreciation for Judaism, a sensitivity to the impact of the holocaust, and the awareness of the sources in a way that shows compelling continuity between the world of Judaism and the world of Jesus and Paul. The most disappointing element I encounter when I read both old perspective scholars and apocalyptic scholars is how little of Judaism they bring into the discussion. I can think of some examples, but there’s very little to compare with Dunn’s 3 volumes or Wright’s 2 big volumes on Paul. This gives the NPP a kind of historical credibility because it is anchored in the actual world in which Jesus and Paul flourished. (Not to discount the Greco-Roman world.)

4) One of the complaints against the New Perspective is that it doesn’t take personal sin seriously. How would you respond? Do you feel that the NT stresses “personal” sin and the need of a “personal” savior as much as modern evangelicalism seems to?

This can be countered with this: the “old” perspective does not take corporate sin and systemic evil and ecclesiology seriously enough. In some sense the difference is not one of either-or but of emphasis.

Having made that point, and I’m not being snarky, it is simply not true that NPP scholars don’t expect personal sin and personal faith and personal salvation. Read Dunn’s big pumpkin-colored book on Paul or Wright’s many writings on Paul, and you can find the need for personal faith.

But remember this: the obsession with “Do you have personal faith?” is not a theme of the Reformers (they, after all, catechized into the faith rather than demanding personal decision), it was not even a theme of the Protestants until it got a kick start with Whitefield and then came into fuller bloom in the Great Awakening and then we find it in spades with Finney and Moody and Sunday and then Graham. It is, in other words, a distinctively Western, evangelical, revivalist obsession.

Yes, I believe in personal faith; and I have led dozens of students into personal faith in my years of teaching college students. I’m NPP. Therefore, there’s an empty box in this accusation. Of course, some NPP folks may well not emphasize this enough just as there are some old perspective folks and some apocalyptic folks who don’t emphasize it enough.

How about if we call a halt on this accusation until we produce evidence? And how about if we call people to personal and corporate faith and see sin as both personal and systemic? (Which is biblical to the core.)

August 3, 2017

photo-1470686164816-830d3688f62c_optA plank of the new perspective on Paul — but only “a” plank and not the major weight-bearing plank — was that the Reformers got Paul wrong. Stephen Chester’s new book, Reading Paul with the Reformers, forces New Perspective scholars to stand on another plank while he cuts in at least half the plank of false interpretations of the Reformers. As I said in the previous post, some “fake news” stereotypes were used.

Chester — toward the end of this post — proposes a three-fold criteria for the best readings of the Bible.

Chester begins with Luther and Erasmus and more importantly uses them for the hermeneutical dichotomy they created: Should we do “theological interpretation” (Luther) or historical critical work (Erasmus), and is the Bible clear in all it says (Luther) but difficult at times (Erasmus), and does the ambiguity of Scripture create problems (Erasmus) or is it a false approach (Luther)? Perhaps that picture of Ecclesiastes will be a good symbol for this post.

The presence of such obscurities in Scripture reveals the necessity in interpretation for the authority and tradition of the church. Erasmus acknowledges that Luther is formally correct to insist on the principle of sola scriptura. The authority of the Bible is greater than that of all human decisions, by whomever they are made. But for Erasmus, “the debate here is not about Scripture itself… the quarrel is over its meaning
.” 25

Good idea, but where? Spirit? Tradition? Consensus?

It will not do to invoke the Holy Spirit against tradition …  Rather, the Spirit should be identified with the consensus of tradition, and this identification makes incredible Luther’s claim that the church has erred in its basic teaching about salvation.

Luther digs in his heels: the Bible is clear for its redeemed readers. To say it is not clear threatens God’s communication skills!

In response, Luther denies Erasmus’s premise that the meaning of Scripture is not always plain. … There are things in God that are unclear and meant to lie beyond the ability of human intellect to grasp, but Scripture communicates that of God which God has chosen to reveal. “If Scripture is obscure or ambiguous, what point was there in God’s giving it to us?”26

Erasmus thinks Luther’s talking about his own interpretations and that means Luther, well…

For Erasmus, Luther possesses a dangerous will to interpretative power and wants “to be the lord, not the steward, of Holy Scripture.” 27

What they were fighting about is a fight that has not ended.  Notice the theme of accommodation.

Erasmus and Luther thus present a fascinating comparison in their approaches to the nature of Scripture and its interpretation. Both regard Scripture as an act of divine accommodation to human language, both emphasize that Scripture mediates Christ, and both believe that under the guidance of the Spirit the church ultimately will not err in interpretation. Yet their convictions about how this accommodation and mediation takes place, and how the Spirit guides the church, offer striking contrasts. 30

This is classic Luther: the Bible is clear, it is to be preached and announced.

For the Scriptures to be obscure would defeat their purpose. The truths of Scripture are to be openly proclaimed and when difficulties in interpretation arise, they result from human sinfulness or from limited knowledge of the biblical languages. Close attention to grammar and normal linguistic usage provides guidance concerning the intentions of the Spirit. This does not displace the role of the church in interpretation, for the true church will interpret truly. Scripture is clear and if the visible church, especially the Papacy, errs in interpretation, this indicates that it is not the true church. 30

Chester knows that both of these scholars dip their understanding of Scripture in ecclesiology.

Both men, despite radically different definitions of the church, ultimately locate that authority and validity in the church as the church is guided by the Holy Spirit. In this sense, they are both ecclesial interpreters. 31

That ecclesial interpretation, however, has been displaced by many today. Many think the major approach is history, and that means finding out what happened behind the Bible and beyond the Bible rather than just what the Bible says or, better yet, what the Spirit is saying through the Bible. The historical method is no more unifying — and is truly much worse at unifying Bible readers.

It is widely perceived that the attempt of the last two centuries or more to replace the authority of the church in interpretation with impartial historical inquiry—conducted largely by means of the heroic efforts of individual scholars—has failed. 31

The following is huge for Chester and for comprehending the intent of the Reformers, and it unmasks the intent of historians:

For, although both Erasmus and Luther extensively discuss Paul as the author of those biblical texts most often relevant to their debates, they do not reconstruct Paul’s theology. Their concern is not to understand Paul as such, but to understand what the Holy Spirit has said through Paul in his texts. They focus on the disclosure of Jesus Christ by these texts as part of the wider unified witness of Scripture. 33

The main event is thus not Paul’s important thoughts as such, but rather what the Holy Spirit has said through Paul. The goal of theological interpretation of Scripture is to explicate that speaking of the Spirit. 34

My point is not that the project is wrong but that, even if achievable, its results can never be an authoritative guide to interpretation for the church. For in the church, authority lies with the Spirit-inspired texts in their disclosure of Christ, not with a reconstruction of the theology argued to have underlain those texts. Theological interpretation and historical interpretation each has its own validity, and the same scholar may with complete legitimacy engage in both at different times, but they are different from each other in their goals and should not be pursued as if those goals are the same. 37

That historical method is not adequate, but it is necessary and important and becomes dialectical with theological interpretation:

For all these reasons, there is no justification for doing anything other than subjecting theological readings of Paul’s texts to the most rigorous and critical historical examination. 41

But this leads into Erasmus, not Luther: there is plurality and diversity in interpretation.

However, we should also recognize that precisely because of their historical nature as ancient texts our knowledge of which is limited, it may be possible to provide several different accounts of what the Spirit is saying to us through Paul’s texts that have more or less equal claims to historical plausibility. It is precisely this that accounts for our inability to reach a conclusion as to the center of Paul’s theology. 43

Now Chester’s three criteria, reformatted:

The conflict of interpretations is thus best addressed by a mixed hermeneutic. The goal of hearing the Spirit speak through Paul in his texts is served by applying the triple criteria of

historical plausibility,
canonical consistency,
and contemporary theological fruitfulness. 48

While Chester will appreciate the new perspective he’s doing the newer new perspective, one that appreciates too the Reformers’ reading of Paul.

John MacArthur ought to read this book.

May 16, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 10.25.45 AMIt is perhaps not as well known as it might be that James D.G. Dunn, who was the earliest driver for exploring the conclusions of E.P. Sanders’ famous Paul and Palestinian Judaism for the apostle Paul’s theology and mission, is a Wesleyan or a Methodist. Thus, his Pauline theology shows contact with the Holiness Tradition of Christian theology. N.T. Wright, on the other hand, is an Anglican so shows more contact with the Reformed Tradition of Christian theology. It must be emphasized, however, that both Dunn and Wright are NT scholars who are more than willing to put their theological traditions to the test of Scripture itself. Scripture in its historical, especially Jewish, context.

One of Northern’s students, Tara Beth Leach, a Nazarene (thus, Holiness Tradition), approached me to do an independent study how the Nazarene, Wesleyan and Holiness tradition would respond to the new perspective on Paul. Her work for the class opened up an opportunity for me to show it to my co-editor, Joe Modica (at Eastern University), for his scrutiny — and when Joe thought it was good enough for publication in our book I affirmed his judgment, having already come to that conclusion. So, our post today will focus on Tara Beth Leach’s chapter in the book you can see in the image for this post: The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life. Tara Beth drew three primary sources into discussion: the apostle Paul, the Nazarene-Holiness-Wesleyan tradition (including Wesley, Wiley) as well as Gordon Fee. She doesn’t speak for the whole of the Wesleyan or Nazarene tradition, but her essay will be one type of exploration for that tradition.

I have been around a number of Wesleyans who have said to me, “I was always ‘new perspective’ and never knew what it was!” I’ve been around others who say, “I am clearly ‘old perspective’ and that is what Wesley taught, too.” OK, they can argue amongst themselves but I have been more than curious over the years to watch how various traditions incorporate the new perspective, and now the apocalyptic theology, into their existing tradition. It is a pity that some in the Reformed tradition reacted so antagonistically to the new perspective — to be sure, some claims by some new perspective folks put them outside the margins of specific forms of Reformed dogmatics — because there is plenty of space here for dialogue and mutual benefit.

Now for something Northern Seminary is proud of: Tara Beth Leach has recently been called to be senior pastor at Pasadena, First Church of the Nazarene. Our prayers precede her arrival.

Leach sketches the Wesleyan tradition — including sections on original sin, prevenient grace, justification distinguished from sanctification, and then a good section on holiness and sanctification. Good choice quotations can be found in the chapter. But she continues then to show that the heart of holiness is love, something that I wish more who write about holiness would take note of because for far too many holiness means separation. The Wesleyans have always tied holiness to love. [Holiness can be defined, so I think, as love burning in one direction.]

At this point Leach moves into a challenge: that too often in the Holiness tradition holiness is restricted too much to the individual and is not shaped enough toward the church. That is, for some the ordo salutis is pure individualism. Leach contends the new perspective moves us to think of both love and holiness in terms also of the church. Here is a money quote:

God is love—love lived out through the power of the Holy Spirit in a community of gifted individuals playing one musical piece in different parts, a holy symphony. Holiness is life lived by people in the fullness of the Holy Spirit who are empowered to offer a drastic alternative to the world around them. Love is the melody running through the community, underneath the community, and all around the community. The Christian community is not a place of jarring instruments singing different songs, or a place of gossip, conflict, rejection, pain, strife, and hatred. It is a place where the Spirit’s fruit is present in abundance, so much so that the world around the Christian community can’t help but join the melody. It is a community that is so unified, so melodious, so beautiful that it stops others in their tracks. Those on the outside can’t help but peer in, and watch with awe and wonder, and notice the unity of the symphony. Instead of the emphasis being on the solo Christian striving to live a holy life, it is on a holy people,  a symphony. It is a collection of individuals all uniquely gifted, sometimes polarizing opposites, yet unified in the same symphony (166).

She then develops this in the following themes: walk by the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit, the dying of exclusiveness, love, and edification. Read those sections, you’ll be blessed by the Nazarene tradition for it!

April 5, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 8.06.10 AMEvery time I look through the contributors to The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective (ed. J. Modica, SMcK), I think that specific contributor’s essay was my favorite to read. Which brings to my “new favorite,” the essay by Patrick Mitchel, principal at Belfast Bible College and formerly at Irish Bible Institute. Mitchel brings a different angle — not just the Irish angle — to this discussion because he is a theologian and not a New Testament specialist. Like the great theologians of the church — Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Barth — Patrick Mitchel fashions theology on the basis of Bible study (not just the history of dogmatics) and, adding spice to his theology, he’s got a great perception of narrative theology. I’m not blowing smoke here — I’m introducing you to a very good theologian.

Patrick once pointed me to a number of good books about Ireland’s turbulent, political theology and theological politics, I read them and came to the conclusion that it might take five years of reading to comprehend the many layers at work in Ireland. Patrick loves Ireland and the churches of the Republic and Northern Ireland, and so he brings to this discussion about the Christian life and the new perspective fresh pastoral angles that cut into the fabric of national and social concerns.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 10.25.45 AMPatrick brings this much needed freshness in the subtitle to his essay: “Solus Spiritus.”

Unlike other contributors to this volume, I have not written a book related to the apostle Paul. I write as a theology lecturer with particular interests in Christology and pneumatology, familiar with the issues raised by the NP and passionate about teaching and preparing students try in a post-Christendom culture on the western edge of Europe. I also write as a church person: an elder in a developing church-plant; a teacher  and preacher who—since the Pauline corpus makes up most of the New Testament—faces regularly the task of bridging the hermeneutical gap between Paul’s world and ours (71).

Hence, he says this about Paul later in his essay:

I like to think of Paul (and indeed all the writers of the New Testament) as an inspired reflective practitioner. I use the word inspired deliberately, to resist a reductionistic reconstruction of Paul that leaves little or no room for divine revelation to explain his transformation from persecutor to persecuted (83).

This is the cutting edge of theology: where it meets church and where church meets theology, and where church and theology interact with society. One of the best sketches to date of the new perspective can be found in the first major section of Patrick’s essay, and he articulates this important point about the “old” perspective: “A corollary of the first concern [Judaism as a works righteousness religion] was that the OP led to a gospel of ‘bad news’ prior to the announcement of ‘good news'” (73). This is often rooted in the “legalistic Jew” in all of us, and this old perspective’s mistaken perception of the relationship of justification to sanctification and between faith and works (see the previous essay by B. Longenecker). Patrick also shows that the old perspective tended toward a preoccupation with individualism. [It is not a little ironic that one of the critiques by some defenders of the old perspective is that new perspective folks don’t have room for the individual and the personal — the irony is that in that critique the old perspective critic is displaying the problem the new perspective folks have seen.] His final observation about the new perspective is that it showed that the old perspective too often ignored narrative theology shaping NT theology.

Here Mitchel enters into his expertise: how have the old perspective folks responded to the new perspective claims? First, there is a concern with how sinners are put right with God. E.g., that NT Wright focuses on the horizontal at the expense of the vertical (that is, inclusion of Gentiles in the church vs. being put right with God), future justification (it is said by critics of Wright) is tied to closely to a transformed life (in spite of Wright’s routine statements to the contrary), and Wright rejects the classic doctrine of imputation. The other major criticism has to do with divine and human agency. [I insert here some radical versions of Lutheran theology that seem to be attractive to some in the old perspective, Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel crowd — expressed by Preston Sprinkle.] There is more to discuss here, but Mitchel is right: both sides bring important elements to the discussion, while the old perspective tends toward centralizing soteriology in a Reformed or Lutheran mode.

The “anxious Protestant principle” of not importing works into salvation has tended to marginalize what Paul has to say on the Christian life. In other words, the priority of how to “get in” has tended to make secondary the importance of the life lived once “in.” This is despite moral formation being the goal of Paul’s missionary work among his churches, as James Thompson has shown wonderfully well (81).

Another irony about old perspective criticisms of the new perspective not having enough emphasis on the Christian life — listen to these words from Mitchel:

The result, while certainly imperfect and open to criticism in places, has in my view forged fresh ways of appreciating the integration of the apostle’s theology with how it shapes his vision for the Christian life. Once we step back from the detailed arguments, I suggest that it is easier to see that the most significant contribution of the new perspective has been how it has acted as a catalyst for a renewed appreciation for the narrative coherence of Paul’s thought. This wider angle, in turn, helps to foster a renewed integration of Pauline theology and ethics and helps to focus attention on the purpose of justification within Paul’s ecclesiology, eschatology, and pneumatology (81).

These are powerful words that bring fresh insights into the entire debate, but what has to be observed here is that what Mitchel claims is that the new perspective, contrary to its sometime critics, sheds fresh light on how Paul envisions the Christian life! This is the reason this volume was produced, to show just that.

Here is Patrick Mitchel’s chart that maps Paul’s theology of the Christian life (and he offers observations showing no chart can contain it all):

Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 8.51.40 AM

Notice continuity, the covenant God makes with Abraham setting the Bible’s narrative, the importance of some discontinuity, the prominence of Spirit, and the pervasive reshaping under the influence of eschatology. This in contrast to the simplistic but appealing to some law vs. grace narrative/ideology that at times overrides all other themes.

With NT Wright, Mitchel observes a “restructuring” of monotheism, Torah and the people of God. Justification, too, then is inseparably linked to ethical transformation in the new age of the Spirit that generates transformation.

March 21, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 9.57.32 AMA discussion with a pastor this week led to a question by the pastor: “The difference is just nuance, isn’t it?” What difference?, you ask. The difference between the old and the new perspective.  Toss in the apocalyptic Paul and some think this is nothing but a squabble among scholars that has nothing to do with the church, with the Christian, and with the Christian life — especially for ordinaries.

My contention, and the contention of the authors of our co-edited book, The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective (ed. J. Modica, S McKnight). Each of the three perspectives on Paul orients the Christian life in special ways and begins in particular places and those ways and places result in different orientations to the Christian life. The old perspective orients the Christian life in personal soteriology and it results in an individualistic presentation of the ordo salutis. The apocalyptic draws together great themes in the old perspective, turns them into cosmically-adjusted significance with upper case letters — Grace, Sin, Flesh, Redemption, and also focuses on cosmic themes: New Creation, Justice, and Peace. What about the new perspective? What is its orientation?


Today I look at the excellent essay in the volume by Lynn Cohick, professor of NT at Wheaton, who examines how Ephesians frames the Christian life. Here is here thesis:

The NPP offers a reconstruction of Second Temple Judaism that draws on new literary and archaeological evidence to suggest that Jews in this period practiced the law on the basis of their standing as God’s chosen people. The keeping of the law did not save; instead, following the law demonstrated God’s election of Israel. When Paul’s epistles are read against this historical backdrop, new insights are illuminated. Most important, readers today appreciate Paul’s theological conviction that Christ’s work creates a new humanity, a singular fellowship that defies human social and cultural codes and challenges the cosmic forces. This redeemed body of Christ stands as a testimony to the world of God’s unfathomable grace to all and his promise that all will be made right in the end (45).

Notice the orientation: (1) in a Jewish context in which Judaism is not understood as works righteousness over against which Christianity teaches election by grace, and (2) the “new humanity” that “defies human social and cultural codes,” and (3) it “challenges the cosmic forces.” And, (4) this new redeemed body of Christ — the church — witnesses to the world of the presence of God’s grace for all.

Thus, Jews expressed their Jewishness in a variety of contexts and ways but central to it all was Torah observance, most focused on practices like Sabbath, circumcision, and food laws (22). An ethnic identity works itself out in a variety of religious, cultural and political relations. A worldview that included the various statuses of ethnic groups was inherent to the Roman world, including the Jewish worldview. Paul fits into this worldview when he writes Ephesians.

Cohick makes a valuable observation: one cannot reduce all humans to believer vs. unbeliever. Yes, that is true but there remain Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, males and females — at some level of differentiation.  Paul shifted Torah observance from a “universal mandate for God’s people to a sociological category representing a cultural display expressing Jewish heritage” (27). That is, it was fine for Jewish believers to eat kosher, but kosher was not to be demanded of Gentiles.

Paul’s message to the Ephesians, then, focuses on three themes: “(1) racial and ethnic reconciliation within the church, (2) community identity among believers in both the local church and the global church, and (3) personal holiness as befits a member of God’s people” (28). So a thematic verse is Eph 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…”. God accomplishes this resulting new community through adoption — both Jews and Gentile.

Notice, too, the use of “we” (for Jews) and “you” (for Gentiles) in Ephesians. Here is how Lynn puts this:

Perhaps it is endemic to any group, the temptation to see one’s own people as the “we” in Paul’s letters. Nevertheless, “we” Americans must humbly acknowledge the historical reality that we were first of all the “you” in Paul’s letters, those graciously added to God’s family through adoption. The “we” of the American churches needs the “you” of the global South and the Asian churches. The “we” of Paul and his Jewish compatriots is not a “we” of dominance, of paternalism, of superiority; it is a “we” of chronological experience of God’s revealed truth. God spoke to Israel, “we Jews,” first in creating a people unto himself (35-36).

December 28, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-12-25 at 6.31.48 PMIn 1977 E.P. Sanders wrote Paul and Palestinian Judaism and unleashed what, in the expression originally of N.T. Wright and then more forcefully J.D.G. Dunn, is called “the new perspective.” Sanders, however, put far more pressure on how we understand Judaism than how we understand either Jesus (he did write Jesus and Judaism) or Paul (only a small book on Paul, and a long section in P&PJ).

In fact, Sanders’ best book — in my estimation — other than the 1977 juggernaut is his book Judaism: Practice and Belief. There he sketched how Judaism is understood in contemporary to the NT sources, most especially Josephus. I contend this was his most important work of all since he put into print how he understood Judaism more completely than is found in P&PJ.

Dunn and Wright both followed up the work of Sanders on Judaism with strong proposals on how to understand Paul — Dunn completing his work in The Theology of Paul the Apostle (the “pumpkin book”) and NT Wright in Paul and the Faithfulness of God. These two works have formed the core of the new perspective. Those who criticize the new perspective without reading these two works carefully are offering talking points they’ve heard in the academic corridors but are not talking personal knowledge.

What we needed from Sanders was something more than the last sections of P&PJ and more than we got in his little book on Paul in the Past Masters series. I’m happy to announce we have that book nowTo use the words of my father in law, it’s a “ming” (his term for something big and heavy). It’s got to be connected to the Ming dynasty but I don’t find this meaning in urban dictionaries. Anyway, E.P. Sanders now has a book called Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought (Fortress, 2015). The book was pressed between our two front doors on Christmas Eve Day so it is my Christmas present.

It’s 862 pages, but the font is unusually large (nice for this reader’s eyes) and there’s plenty of white space and, even more, Sanders has great prose — he is crystal clear. He doesn’t care about the old perspective, new perspective and apocalyptic Paul debate. He simply lays out what he thinks Paul means in all his (authentic) letters, paragraph by paragraph. Which is, as the title of his post suggests, the completion of the new perspective on Judaism by forging an interpretation of Paul.

After about a 150 page introduction (worth every minute of reading), we get “commentaries” on Paul’s theology in each letter Sanders thinks Paul wrote: 1 Thess, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians and Romans. Plus Philemon.

Classic Sanders, classic new perspective, classic foundation for re-reading Paul:

In addition to the general charge that studying how to obey the commandments of the Hebrew Bible made the Pharisees focus on trivia, the Protestant critics of ancient Judaism have accused ancient Jews in general and Pharisees in particular of holding the view that they could achieve salvation by these trivial acts of obedience to the law and by piling up “good deeds” or “good works.”

This supposed soteriology (doctrine of salvation) is usually termed “self-righteousness,” “works-righteousness,” “legalism,” or simply ‘self-salvation.” The supposed Pharisaic dogma is totally opposed to relying on the grace of God; all depends on each individual’s performance.

I have two preliminary remarks, both of which have to do with the unusual nature of Christianity compared to other religions. The first concerns “dogma.” Over the centuries, Christianity became a religion that required its members to believe (or to say that they believed) a list of propositional truths—dogmas. In religious services they recited creeds, lists of dogmas. This conception of Christianity soon produced the possibility of heresy—believing things that were not on the approved list. Deliberately and publically [sic] disagreeing with items on the list could be fatal.

Many modern scholars of Christianity have come from dogmatic backgrounds, and they have thought it natural for a religion to have numerous dogmas. When they considered Judaism, they looked for dogmas, and many years ago they came up with the soteriological dogma that I described above (self-salvation). …

The second historical peculiarity of Christianity is that it began as a religion of individual salvation; and, although it has now taken on many cultural and social forms, individual salvation—eternal life in a state of bliss—remains a central concern.

The history of the Israelite and Jewish religion is quite different. The Hebrew Bible has very little to say about an afterlife and even less to say about the requirements that individuals must satisfy in order to be saved. Judaism’s main concern has long been the preservation of the people as a group, not individual salvation, and in the main bodies of literature there are no dogmas about what individuals should believe in order to have eternal life. …

It is this: Jews are born in the covenant and are members of the chosen people. In order to gain eternal life (“the world to come,” olam haba), they should obey the commandments as best they could and atone for transgression. That is, they are born into the “in group’ and all they have to do is to remain loyal to the covenant and to the God who gave it. Supererogatory efforts are not required. …

Thus Paul shared the general Jewish view: members of the “in group” will be saved, though God may punish them before or at the time of the judgment.

The difference between Paul and common Judaism on this point is that in Judaism people are born into the covenant and do not need any sort of transformation. They start out in the “in group” and need only to stay in by not rejecting the covenant. In Paul’s view (and that of many other Christians), everyone starts life in need of salvation. They must all do something—convttt, put their faith in Christ—in order to get into the group that will be saved. Once they are in the new covenant, however, the system of rewards and punishments works in the same way as in Judaism. (42-48)

Sanders has a bit of a bug in his bonnet when it comes to denying there is evidence that Paul was an actual Pharisee. The Paul of Acts is one, but Sanders thinks we have to go on the basis of Paul’s letters, and this is how he sums up his discussion:

Paul knew enough about Pharisaism to identify himself as a Pharisee, but I do not see anything in his letters that points toward his knowledge of exclusively Pharisaic views or practices.

Belief in the resurrection might have been enough for Paul to call himself a Pharisee “as to the law,” because it seems to have been a very prominent issue in Palestinian Pharisaism, even though it was not unique to the Pharisees. Acts 23:6 explicitly points in that direction.

Although many people combined fate and freewill, it is possible that Paul regarded this as one of his Pharisaic characteristics.

Similarly, it is conceivable that he regarded his expertise in knowing and interpreting the Bible as Pharisaic. Even though Pharisees were by no means the only experts, they were renowned for their “precision” in understanding the biblical text.

Since there are no traces of uniquely Pharisaic ideas and practices in
Paul’s letters, readers may remain agnostic on the question of whether or not Paul received a Pharisaic education. Scholars who find Pharisaic positions in Paul’s letters, or the denial of them, are, in every case that I have noted, making the mistake of assuming that the Pharisees were the only Jews who had legal positions or the only ones who had purity practices.

We noted, however, one point that counts against Paul’s being a Palestinian Pharisee: he seems not to have been highly educated in how to make general principles or vague laws in the Bible apply precisely to everyday life, which was an important point of Pharisaism. (54)

November 6, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 6.23.34 AMIn the mid to late 90s I began to hear traditional, mostly the Reformed with hints of Lutheranism Christian leaders begin to accuse the “new perspective” of weaknesses and in the criticism I was hearing descriptions of what “new perspective on Pau” (NPP) theologians believed — as if the NPP had a systematic theology worked out. I was not a Pauline specialist so some of the discussions were about the most recent statement by one or more NPP scholars. What I did register as questions to not a few accusers was this: Who are you talking about? (Dunn? Wright? Sanders? who?) Have you read them? Have you read the Jewish sources? And Why do you think any of these NT specialists — and clearly not all that excited about systematics — to have a “systematic” theology that you can accuse?

Here is a noteworthy reminder: If you want to know what a NPP theologian thinks, read EP Sanders, JDG Dunn or NT Wright and pay attention to what that person actually says. Don’t ask the so-called critics of the NPP; first read what the scholars say themselves. This is the second noteworthy reminder: These three scholars, while they agree at a substantive level on Judaism itself, do not agree on how to frame Paul (even if there are some significant overlaps in their understanding of Paul’s theology) with just as many substantive overlaps with the old perspective people themselves! If you are in a library right now, just grab Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle and along with it Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, compare the Table of Contents, and notice that these two framings of Paul’s theology are not remotely similar. My third noteworthy observation: the old perspective (OPP) framed Paul through a Lutheran-Reformed set of categories and meanings and the OPP criticisms tend to say the NPP is not Lutheran or Reformed. Which says nothing about which framing is the most consistent with the apostle Paul. The more important issue is what Paul meant in his Jewish context.

Before we move on here is the final noteworthy observation: the NPP is formed on the basis of a revised understanding of Judaism that undercuts the old perspective’s view of Judaism, and that old perspective’s view of Judaism formed the rhetorical opposition to some very important ideas for the OPP’s view of what Paul was saying.  My illustration: when Reformed pastor-theologian Tim Keller compares “performance” vs. “grace” he is trading in an older view of Judaism that the NPP scholars all agree was a stereotype, a dangerous stereotype, a theologically-shaped stereotype, and one that gave rise to a specific kind of Reformed/Lutheran reading of Paul. If that view of Judaism is inaccurate, then our understanding of Paul must shift. That in essence is the whole of the NPP’s center. How one then frames Paul’s theology leads to significant differences between NPP scholars.

Today I want to look at one of the major architects of the so-called NPP: NT Wright.  But I want to look at his own sketch of the NPP and “life after EP Sanders.” (Paul and His Recent Interpreters)

It all begins with EP Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. (There were predecessors, but the defining moment was Sanders’ 1977 book — before him were GF Moore and K Stendahl, not to ignore WD Davies, EP Sanders’ teacher.)

Big points: Judaism was not a works-based religion and did not advocate works righteousness (therefore Paul could not have been saying the Judaizers were a works-based righteousness religion); Judaism was covenant nomism, that is, God’s grace, election and covenant were first and the law (nomos, nomism) was given for the covenant member to know how to live. It was about maintenance of life in the covenant not about entrance into the covenant. This undercuts the all-too-common view of Judaism found among major NT scholars (from Luther on but especially found in major German thinkers — Sanders was concerned with Weber, Strack-Billerbeck, Jeremias and Bultmann). That undercutting calls for a new way of reading Paul, which Sanders did through “participationist eschatology” (an updating and revisioning of A. Schweitzer’s “Christ mysticism.”)

Wright probes five reasons why Sanders’ work was such a defining moment: (1) it was the culmination of a chorus of scholars who were unhappy with how people talked about Judaism; (2) it brought into clarity that Paul was a Jewish not a Hellenistic thinker; (3) Sanders’ Paul resonated in important ways with a Reformed view of Paul! Grace, Torah as a good thing to be obeyed. (4) It resonated with some important fresh exegetical studies of Pauline texts. (5) Sanders was part of the fresh American university scholarship about religions and religious studies that stood over against confessional and theological orientations. Thus, it brought a relativist agenda into the Pauline scholarship world.

As Wright continues: Sanders reminded scholarship that 1st Century Judaism was not Pelagianism or early Medieval Catholicism. In particular, Wright wraps his mind around a big feature of Sanders that Wright has extended but that shaped the appeal of Sanders:

But the great strength of Sanders’s proposal, greater indeed I think than he even realized, was to see that the entire structure of rabbinic halakah, the classified Taw’ took place within a larger context still: the context (Sanders did not explore this, but it is important) of a story, the story of a people. It was the story of God’s redemption of Israel, based on God’s election and ultimately on God’s love and grace. God loves; God chooses; God redeems; God gives Torah. Only then does Israel obey, within that context and for that reason. There was always a danger in reducing this story, as Sanders understandably did, to a formula, namely ‘covenantal nomism’; though, as formulae go, that one seems to be sharp and clear, pointing back beyond itself to the narrative which is its own bottom-line reality. I would greatly prefer something like ‘covenantal narrative’, and to this, too, we shall return (70-71).

He digs in how Sanders thought of the religious context in Judaism:

But for Sanders the framework is everything; and in principle I think he is right. Certainly his point is proved over against the old caricatures in which it could be assumed that ‘the Jews’, lock, stock and barrel, were automatically and inalienably investing in a degenerate, dehumanizing and ineffective form of ‘religion’, doing their best to lift themselves out of the mud by their own hair and lurching from pride (when they thought they were being successful) to despair (when they realized they were just as stuck as they had been before). One can read many, many pages in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, in the Scrolls, in Philo and in Josephus – not to mention the rabbis – without coming upon anything remotely like this (72).

This is Wright’s most important critique of Sanders:

Sanders’s great strength is that he really knows the rabbis. His great weakness is that he really knows the rabbis, and reads their largely dehistoricized, de-storied world back into the other Judaisms of the first century, r He makes the case that has to be made, that they lived within an implicit covenantal framework. But he sees neither the essentially narrative quality of that framework nor the fact that Paul himself shared it. What is more, I suspect that part of the gut-level reaction to Sanders on the part of the so-called ‘old perspective’ is a worldview-level reaction to the very idea of a narrative world, any narrative world at all except that of the narrative of the individual sinner needing to find personal salvation (75).

Sanders famously thought Paul moved from solution to plight — not plight to solution. This raises what will become, in substantivally different forms, the apocalyptic Paul approach to reading everything anew in light of the Christ event. This solution, Wright observes, misses the historical plane of Israel’s own dilemma vs. a soteriological plane that focuses on individual salvation.

The NPP begins with Sanders, but it spawned not a New Perspective but instead New Perspectives on Paul. Our next post will investigate various framings of Paul on the basis of a revised view of Judaism.

April 1, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 11.26.49 AMThis is not an April Fools day post. It’s a post appreciating the greatness of Martin Luther, with whom I’ve had my own struggles. I, of course, love his accomplishment in the Protestant Reformation, wish more would be made on the part of many in seeing how political that movement actually was, think his posing of law over against gospel is not only a false dichotomy but shatters the biblical narrative, and of course I know what he did to both Anabaptists and Jews. Yet… yet… yet… Luther must be seen for the Titan he was.

So, when I heard that one of my favorite church historians had written a book on Luther and the Christian life, I had to read it… and it is a very good book that I recommend enthusiastically: Carl Trueman, Luther and the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015).

The book is about the Christian life but Trueman keeps a constant eye on the pastoral life and pastoral implications of Luther’s theological understanding of life. A pastor can read this entire book for its pastoral theology with great profit.

Carl’s got a way with words, and this one illustrates his indirection — and wit — for a big sweep of Luther:

For Luther, as someone not gifted in the matter of understatement, Anabaptists were allies of the Antichrist, another point of undoubted discomfort for modern evangelical appropriations of his theology. Not only was he a militant, unrepentant paedobaptist; he also ascribed rather negative eschatological significance to his opponents on this score (141).

Trueman loves Luther as a man and learns from him as a theologian and pastor and husband:

Over twenty years ago, I was being interviewed for what would prove to be my first tenured appointment at a university. Halfway through the ordeal, one of the interviewers asked me, “If you were trapped on a desert island, who would you want with you—Luther or Calvin?” My response was reasonably nuanced for a reply to an unexpected question: “Well, I think Calvin would provide the best theological and exegetical discussion, but he always strikes me as somewhat sour and colorless. Luther, however, may not have been as careful a theologian, but he was so obviously human and so clearly loved life. Thus, I’d have to choose Luther.” Later that day, I was offered the position of lecturer in medieval and Reformation theology (195).

In some ways Trueman’s task is to yank Luther from the clutches of some evangelical uses of him and his theology, not to show how Luther differed over and over with Roman Catholicism. Thus, Trueman knows his audience, knows what needs most to be said, and this book does it. But there is no idealizing of Luther in this book:

With a figure like Martin Luther, the tendency will always be to make him a hero or a villain. The stakes are so high in the Reformation debate, and Protestant and Roman Catholic identities so wrapped up in responses to him, that the temptation of a black-and-white, morally and theologically straightforward approach is significant. Yet even this brief overview of his life reveals not only the connections between his biography and his theology but also the human contradictions and failings that were part of who he was and what he did. His stand at Worms is magnificent; his later writings against the Jews are nauseating. What are we to do with him? (54)

Because Trueman has been teaching Luther for so many years he stands above the normal readings and points us all to what is most important to how many read Luther today:

The key texts for the popular evangelical understanding of Luther were all in place by then: The Ninety-Five Theses, The Heidelberg Disputation, The Freedom of the Christian Man, and The Bondage of the Will. One or two great texts were yet to be written (the great commentary on Galatians being the obvious example), but on the whole these four titles cover the working canon through which most Protestant evangelicals approach Luther (160).

Trueman probes other writings to sketch how he views the Christian life but that life is formed in a public context with surges of response, reaction and opposition. In that context Luther’s view of the Christian life comes to the surface:

 In a sense, the details are no longer important: the precise issues and practices to which Luther was reacting have long since vanished. What is important is the theology on which the theses were built: the theology of humility and the costliness of grace. Though Luther probably did not realize it at the time, these struck at the heart of the medieval sacramental system and thus at the authority of the church. In criticizing indulgences, Luther also did what is always guaranteed to precipitate a reaction: he hit the church where it hurts most, in her revenue department (38-39).

In his sketch of Luther’s life as the context for his theology and view of the Christian life, Trueman offers this proposal of when the Reformation began — not with the pinning of the 95 theses but… the Leipzig debate where Luther “also added that papal supremacy was a relatively recent innovation” (42). He drove — pounded — a wedge between the gospel and the Catholic Church’s teachings:

Arguably, this is the moment when the Reformation truly began in earnest, for it was then that the implications of Luther’s otherwise piecemeal attacks on indulgences and theological method became clear. If Luther was right, if humility was the key to salvation, then the whole medieval system needed to be rejected, and the papacy was wrong. Leipzig made this clear, along with the fact that there was no middle ground (42).

In the term humility (a theology of the cross and glory) Luther’s central note of the Christian life is heard. As Trueman says it

Luther believed that, outside of Christ, he was dead in trespasses and sins and desperately wicked. His attitude toward the Jews confirms his own opinion of himself (53).

Thus, for Luther at the core of the Christian life is justification by faith and this cannot be emphasized too much and it gets deeper and deeper into the heart of a theological view of life — he digs into the sinful heart to discover what grace means. This is not the Reformed experience so much as it is the Lutheran experience, and I pull here three quotations:

In the medieval understanding, justification was a process of growing righteous via the impartation of Christ’s righteousness connected to the infusion of grace via the sacramental ministry of the church. Thus, justification was simply one part of a much larger structure (67-68).

Thus, a man may appear outwardly righteous (before the world) but in reality be inwardly unrighteous. Likewise, he may appear outwardly unrighteous and indeed despicable but inwardly be perfectly righteous before God. This distinction is absolutely basic to Luther’s understanding of justification, for it is the basis upon which he asserts that no external thing (in terms of works righteousness) can actually affect standing before God (68).

We noted earlier how Luther in 1517, and even on into 1518, was committed to seeing humility as the key that made someone a passive recipient of God’s grace. By 1520, humility had been absorbed into, and transformed by, his broader understanding of faith as trust in God’s Word (68).

Salvation then, justification then, is epistemological and experiential all at once: it is the joyful exchange of Christ’s alien righteousness to us and prompts gratitude in spades. This then creates a new kind of life, a life of cross-shaped and grace-shaped freedom, the kind of freedom that is a theology of the cross and grace and death and resurrection and not one of happiness, victory or abundance:

Freedom for Luther must be understood through the incarnation and the cross: it is freedom to serve others and freedom to die for others. The whole of the Christian faith, and therefore the whole of Christian ministry, needs to be constructed in light of who God is for us as he is revealed in his incarnate Son hanging on the tree at Calvary (75).

The logic of the cross says that weakness and death, painful as they are, have been utterly subverted by God in Christ, that pain and mortality have ironically become the means of strength and power, and that the grave itself has become the gateway to paradise. And that is the lesson of justification by grace through faith too: the outer man may well be fading away, but the inner man goes from strength to strength (77).

Now hear this: Luther’s theory of the Christian life is corporate, ecclesial and centered in the fundamental categories of Word and sacraments.

For all of the post-Bultmannian [read: new perspective?] criticisms of Luther for developing an individualistic theology, in practice his emphases are really rather corporate: Word and sacrament demand a corporate context (79).

OK, fair enough,but I would say it is still quite individualistic for there is precious little interest in the church as community. Church is where a priest/pastor preaches Word and hands out sacraments. That is, go to church, hear the sermon, live out the catechism, take eucharist so you can live a responsible Christian life in the public sector. Perhaps I’m missing something here but I don’t see much community focus in Luther’s view of the Christian life. Having said that, I resume where Trueman was:

If the definition of ministry is set by Word and sacrament, so is the substance of the Christian’s life. Luther’s emphasis on Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper should surely point believers toward how they should understand their lives: the church service is fundamental to Christian discipleship. The answer to spiritual weariness, fear, and those dreaded Anfechtungen that afflict the Christian is found not in anything special or extraordinary as the world understands it. That is what the theologian of glory desires. Further, every theologian of glory probably thinks of himself as unique and thus as having special problems that require special solutions. The theologian of the cross, however, while acknowledging that every Christian is unique in that every Christian is a specific individual, also understands that the answer to every unique Christian’s problem is actually very general, and the means are very ordinary. The answer is always Christ crucified for me, and that Christ is found in Word and sacrament (158).

Running this, however, is his theology of law and gospel, a theology that will drive a human to the experience of humility and grace — the cross’s primary impact on the human. Hence, law and gospel run rampant and we find something very similar today in the beliefs of pastors like Tim Keller, Tullian Tchividjian and J.D. Greear, though probably not with the dark themes we see in Luther’s approach to preaching law in order to shatter the confidence of the congregants:

The distinction underlies much of the theology of the disputation but is explicit in thesis 26: “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” Fundamental to Luther’s understanding of salvation, and thus of the Christian life, is the antithesis between doing and believing, between trying to earn salvation and receiving salvation in Christ, between works and faith, between law and gospel (91).

The task of the preacher, therefore, is to take the Bible and to do two things in every sermon: destroy self-righteousness and point hearers toward the alien, external righteousness of Christ (92).

Thus, as the law’s function is to bind and to crush, so the first task of the minister is to preach the law in such a manner that it does this. He must hold before the congregation a vision of the transcendent glory and holiness of God, and force congregants to see just how catastrophically far short of that they all fall. His task is not that of the typical American televangelist: giving people a pep talk and helping them have a good self-image and more confidence in themselves. For Luther, those are the lies of Satan. The preacher’s task is first and foremost to shatter self-confidence in his audience and to drive them to despair.

Once the preaching of the law has driven a person to despair, then the minister is to declare the gospel and point to Christ. That is what the gospel is: an account of the life, work, and significance of the Lord Jesus Christ, as Luther makes clear in his preface to the New Testament: “The gospel, then, is nothing but the preaching about Christ, Son of God and of David, true God and man, who by his death and resurrection has overcome for us the sin, death, and hell of all men who believe in him.” Thus, preaching represents dramatic movement from exposing the folly of self-righteousness and cultivating despair and humility to providing comfort in the Lord Jesus Christ, the promise of whom is grasped by faith (92).

In one of these sermons, he makes a most memorable statement about the power of the Word:

I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply , preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26-29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything (94-95).

Thus, we are back to the church context for the Christian life:

This points toward one of the striking aspects of Luther’s approach to liturgy: the church’s gathered worship is a catechetical exercise, not in the sense of catechisms that operate by question and answer, but in the broader sense of the school of faith. Gathered worship is intended for the education of the people in sound theology upon which to build their lives (103).

Luther’s vision is comprehensive:

Given Luther’s concern that worship fulfill a pedagogical/catechetical function, it is perhaps not surprising, though certainly impressive, that he sees the whole week as providing an opportunity for structured Christian education through the various liturgies of the church. Monday and Tuesday, the service is to focus on teaching about the Decalogue, the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and the Eucharist. These are the established elements of Christian catechesis from the Middle Ages, and Luther clearly assumes them as foundational to the Christian life. Wednesday is to be devoted to teaching from the Gospel of Matthew, as Saturday afternoon is to be devoted to the Gospel of John. Thursday and Friday are to focus on other New Testament writings. Sunday is the big day, with multiple services and three sermons devoted to the Gospels. The overall purpose is “to give the Word of God free course among us” (104).

If anything, Luther values the pastoral life far more than most:

… the minister’s first calling is to be present with those for whom he has oversight. We might even borrow Lutheran terminology from elsewhere: the minister’s presence in his parish is not to be merely symbolic; rather he is to be there as a real presence: in, with, and among his people. This will not only inform his preaching such that it speaks more directly to the particulars of his people’s lives; it will also allow for catechizing, over which the minister has responsibility, and for the one-to-one confession and absolution that some delicate consciences require (108).

And Luther’s honesty comes to the surface in Trueman’s portrait, an honesty that leads to reflections on how to recover one’s fervor:

First, when I feel that I have become cool and joyless in prayer because of other tasks or thoughts (for the flesh and the devil always impede and obstruct prayer), I take my little psalter, hurry to my room, or, if it be the day and hour for it, to the church where a congregation is assembled and, as time permits, I say quietly to myself and word-for-word the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do (119-120).

What then comes to the fore in Luther’s theology of the Christian life?

1. Law and gospel
2. Cross and grace
3. Humility
4. Church receptivity
5. A private/social life shaped by the church’s teachings
6. Joy and fun.

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