Dr. Paul J. Dean Christian Blog and Commentary

A Serious Threat to Orthodoxy: The New Perspective

The doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone is once again receiving great opposition. However, this time the opposition is coming not from Roman Catholics, but from Protestants. The gospel of Paul, that is, the gospel of God (that God justifies sinners by virtue of the imputed righteousness of Christ), is indeed under serious attack. There are those who say that Martin Luther's understanding of Paul is in error. He imposed his own guilty conscience onto the text of Scripture in seeking to understand Paul and in so doing has led Protestants astray for the last five-hundred years.

Second (in connection with the first point in the first installment of this article), according to Kim Riddlebarger who critiques the position in his article "Reformed Confessionalism & The New Perspective on Paul: A New Challenge to a Fundamental Article of Faith (www.modernreformation.org)," the New Perspective is described in a variety of ways. For example, E.P. Sanders maintains "the view that one's place in God's plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man, his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression...obedience maintains one's position in the covenant, but it does not earn God's grace as such."

 

Of course, this position allows the New Perspective folk to reinterpret the concept of righteousness and the relationship between grace and works. The biblical/orthodox view of salvation has always maintained that those who are truly saved will bear evidence of that salvation by virtue of a changed life, that is, in simple terms, through obedience to God and good works. However, the notion that "obedience maintains one's position in the covenant" is incompatible with grace. That concept is the very notion upon which Roman Catholic theology is built. God infuses grace into an infant through baptism for example, and that child must then maintain that state of grace (position in the covenant) through adherence to a sacramental system of works. Riddlebarger notes, "If correct in this regard, Sanders has succeeded in doing what Trent could not do - overturn the Reformation conception of justification as a forensic declaration marking the beginning of the Christian life."

Riddlebarger also quotes James D.G. Dunn. "Paul is concerned not with the Lutheran idea of justification by faith but 'with the relation between Jew and Gentile.' His basic assertion is that faith in Christ abolishes national and racial distinctions made on the basis of circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observations." Further, "In talking of 'being justified' here Paul is not thinking of a distinctly initiatory act of God. God's justification is not his act in first making his covenant with Israel, or in initially accepting someone into the covenant people. God's justification is rather God's acknowledgement that someone is in the covenant..."

Dunn here of course highlights the New Perspective notion that justification in the mind of Paul is not forensic or judicial in nature. In other words, justification has nothing to do with the righteousness of Christ credited to the sinner's account through faith. Rather, the New Perspective views justification as vindication. A person comes into the covenant by grace (in the minds of many through baptism and identification with the church) and maintains his position in the covenant through obedience (works) and is then therefore acknowledged by God to be in the covenant. In other words, God's justification is a vindication of the sinner's claim to be in the covenant. God does not justify guilty sinners on the basis of Christ's work. Rather, He simply says to sinners, "Yes, you are in the covenant as I see your obedience."

The New Perspective seeks to assert that the real issue with Paul is his concern with the relation between Jew and Gentile. No doubt exists that Jews and Gentiles were divided, even after the coming of Christ. The question arises as to why they were so divided if not over the issue of salvation. The New Perspective would have us believe that Paul does not deal with the issue of how guilty sinners can be made right before a Holy God. Rather, he writes to deal with the issue of how Jews and Gentiles relate to one another in the context of the covenant community. Thus, as Riddlebarger notes, "The critical phrase, 'works of the law' can no longer be interpreted as Protestants have historically argued, as an attempt to earn reward-merit from God through human effort. Now the phrase must be limited to mean only those external nationalistic badges, i.e., food laws and circumcision, that tragically divided Jew from Gentile." In response to an individual who recently said to me regarding the New Perspective, "These issues are not a big deal, we're pretty much saying the same thing in different terms," the fact of the matter is that this re-interpretation turns the concept of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone on its head.

Sadly, many have bought into this New Perspective without critical analysis. In light of that fact, without being exhaustive, by way of simple critique at this point, the New Perspective leaves much to be desired in terms of its understanding of Second Temple Judaism, the nature of Luther's battle with Roman Catholic Theology, and a number of exegetical issues.

A host of biblical texts could be marshaled against the New Perspective position, texts that have been completely ignored in their discussion of this vital issue. Riddlebarger cites Moises Silva who "goes so far as to speak of 'Dunn's ignoring of some crucial evidence. I refer to the fact that in the original publication of his articles on Paul, Dunn completely neglected some of the apostle's most explicit statements on the subject at hand, including Rom 4:5; 11:6; Eph 2:8-10; and Phil 3:9.' According to Silva, the methodology consistently 'ends up lording it over the data.'"

In my discussion with a number of individuals regarding this aberrant theology, I quickly turn to Romans 4 in defense of imputation. As noted, those who defend the New Perspective often make the point that Paul does not speak of imputation. The concept of imputation is not in his theology. Yet, Romans 4 is all about imputation. Paul grounds his understanding of justification in the simple statement, "Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Rom. 4:4-5)."

Riddlebarger notes, "In this regard Romans 4:4-5 is especially damaging to the Sanders-Dunn thesis since 'Paul states so sharply the antithesis between working and believing that the latter is virtually defined by the negation of the former'...Silva laments the fact that 'even if Dunn could come up with a plausible understanding of Rom 4:4-5 that is consistent with his thesis, one would still have to ask why this crucial passage seems to have played no role whatever in the development of the thesis.'"

What about Phil. 3:9? Paul emphatically states his desire: [I want to] "be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith." This verse supports the orthodox notion that we have no righteousness of our own (Rom. 3:10f) and that we need an alien righteousness, that is, the righteousness of Christ, if we are to be justified before a Holy God. The problem here lies in the fact that Dunn does not deal with this critical text. One cannot properly lay out an entirely new theology of justification without dealing with texts like these. Riddlebarger notes that Silva is utterly baffled that Dunn can write a book without so much as quoting this verse. He laments, "No doubt, all of us have our blinders and we unwittingly tend to disregard evidence which does not support our theories," but nevertheless, "no explanation of Paul's theology can prove ultimately persuasive if it does not arise from the very heart of Paul's explicit affirmations and denials."

How can we be persuaded when Paul's theology is generally ignored by virtue of critical texts being omitted from the discussion? No, with the New Perspective, it seems that their theology is being imposed upon the Scriptures rather than extracted from them. It seems that Luther is not the one guilty of imposing his own notions upon the text. The proponents of the New Perspective are guilty of that and pose a serious threat not only to orthodox soteriology but indeed to the actual salvation of souls.

[Part Three Tomorrow]

 



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