Obviously, Doug Wilson has become tired of being connected with the New Perspective on Paul (aka, NPism), so, a special edition of Credenda Agenda has come out, replete with a fairly lengthy article on the subject. I have had a couple of folks write and complain that I have noted the confluence of Auburnism (aka the loose movement associated with the past few meetings of the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church conference in January, which we just learned recently will feature N.T. Wright, the chief proponent of NPism amongst conservatives, in 2005) with NPism. Obviously, for those who have listened with any amount of care to my comments, I have pointed out the difference in background of both movements, Auburnism flowing from a staunchly conservative viewpoint, NPism flowing from a liberal background. I have likewise noted the differences in emphases as well. However, anyone who has read Wright cannot help but pause and take notice when Steve Schlissel stands before the gathered congregants at the AAPC conference and asserts that justification is nothing more than the truth that Jews and Gentiles are part of one covenant, and that by faith. If Wilson disagrees, he has yet to be plain about it. When I see in print, “Steve Schlissel is wrong in what he said,” the issue will be concluded. But, having read this special edition, I found no such rebuke of Schlissel’s assertion.
In any case, it is obviously important for Wilson to comment upon the controversy, and this he has done, first in a small appendix to Reformed is Not Enough, and now in this special edition of Credenda Agenda. For some reason, rather than using Wright as his standard, he chooses a small booklet distributed by John Armstrong, written by Michael Thompson from Cambridge. Now, I am a bit hampered by the fact that I’m stuck with Sanders, or Wright, and not this little booklet, and that may well explain my basic disappointment with Wilson’s response, for it seemed to me that the most important elements of NPism’s assertions seemed to be missing from this little booklet by Michael Thompson. Or at least I have to assume so, since the heart of the matter was not addressed, at least not clearly, by Wilson, based upon Thompson’s booklet.
That is not to say there are not some good things in the article. There are. For example, one of my chief concerns with NPism is its rotten root: it comes from that all-too-popular spectrum of scholarship that long ago gave in to the lordship of the human mind. Its originators do not hold to that bulwark of truth that long guided Christian belief: the absolute authority and inerrancy of the Scriptures. I have often voiced my amazement that those who profess conservative, high views of Scripture can embrace systems that flow clearly from the polluted waters of less-than-truly-inspired Scriptures. At one point Wilson does take aim at such “scholarship,” though, and with his trade-mark style of sarcasm:
While I am at this point, I would beg the reader to allow a brief excursus for just a moment. I have just unwittingly revealed that I naively hold to the Pauline authorship of the pastorals. This I gladly affirm, and will throw in the book of Hebrews to boot. Call, and raise you ten. And on top of that, I will assert that serious theology cannot expect to get anywhere until we knock off the urbane silliness that characterizes so much theological discussion today. The Scriptures say the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; some have taken this to mean that unbelief and autonomous rationality must be the beginning of knowledge. In light of this, the ache that some conservative scholars have to be taken seriously in the unbelieving academy is a pitiful thing indeed, and so I would like to take this opportunity to give the whole thing the universal raspberry. What Princeton, Harvard, Duke and all the theological schools in Germany really need to hear is the horse laugh of all Christendom. I mentioned earlier that proud flesh bonds to many strange things indeed, and I forgot to mention scholarship and footnotes. To steal a thought from Kirkegaard, many scholars line their britches with journal articles festooned with footnotes in order to keep the Scriptures from spanking their academically-respectable pink little bottoms.
I just think I am afraid to type “pink little bottoms,” and I generally am not extended the freedom to blow raspberries in public. Maybe that is why I don’t say things that way. In any case, that was my favorite part of the article. Apart from that, I was left without a lot to cheer about, mainly because 1) the exegetical issues were left almost completely untouched, and 2) the NPism Wilson responds to doesn’t look a whole lot like the NPism I’ve read from Wright. The key issue of the nature of justification, along with the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, and the reading of imputational texts in light of the assumed background of Second Temple Judaism, just didn’t get much of a response from Wilson in this article. I guess we can blame Thompson, if we need to, but the end result is the same: little of the important issues of NPism have been given a meaningful conservative response in this article. How about some counter-exegesis of the key texts regarding the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, rather than the ever-present, on-almost-every-page shots at the mainly unnamed critics of Wilson, “the Pharisees of ‘true’ heart conversion” as he calls them at one point? Yes, the story of the Pharisee and the publican is relevant, but, don’t you have to establish the over-all need of viewing Scripture as an inspired whole before aiming that howitzer toward NPism, which does not share that foundational assumption? NPism, at its heart, atomizes the text of Scripture, begins with a fundamental denial of the relevance of the gospel accounts (and especially their testimony to Second Temple Judaism). Such has to be addressed, and it really isn’t in this article. There are good observations of Paul’s own witness concerning Judaism, all very well articulated, and very important. But what of the nature of justification itself? At this point the closest approach to NPism is seen in Wilson’s Auburnistic hyper-covenantalism, and it is just here that many have seen the “connection.” And though Wilson does speak of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, he does not seem to see it as one of the key issues relevant to NPism (it is). NT Wright’s constant denial of this divine truth passes without a whisper, while numerous positive things are said about him instead. Instead we have the rather benign conclusion, “By no means can I give unqualified support to the New Perspective, even to the conservative wing of it represented by men like Wright. But neither can I work myself into a lather over it.” But then again, I guess Wright’s emphasis upon eschatological justification fits well with the same emphasis in Auburnism. I guess it means I’m one of those “true conversion” Pharisees that I get just a tad worked up over such statements as these (page numbers refer to What Saint Paul Really Said):
“Most Protestant exegetes had read Paul and Judaism as if Judaism was a form of the old heresy Pelagianism, according to which humans must pull themselves up by their moral bootstraps and thereby earn justification, righteousness, and salvation.” (19). (It is breathtaking how often Wright completely misses the most basic elements of historic Reformed or Protestant theology and exegesis).
“Many New Testament scholars use detailed exegesis as a way of escaping from heavy-handed and stultifying conservatism; any attempt to articulate an overarching Pauline theology looks to them like an attempt to reconstruct the sort of system from which they themselves are glad to be free.” (21)
Wright speaks often of the Jewish law court as the context of justification, and to a point, that is correct. But amazingly, he completely misses the fact that the law court presented by Paul does not have the bare “judge/parties in dispute” set up he repeatedly presses in his presentation. He misses the advocatethat is plainly presented by Paul in Romans 8. But by ignoring that glorious addition to the law-court scene, Wright can come up with this “new perspective” on Philippians 3:9:
… and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,
The key phrase here, importantly, is not dikaiosune theou, ‘God’s righteousness,’ but dikaiosune ek theou, a righteousness from God. All to often scholars have referred to this passage as though it could be the yardstick for uses of dikaiosune theou; but this is impossible. Thinking back to the Hebrew law court, what we have here is the ‘righteousness’, the status, which the vindicated party possesses as a result of the court’s decision. This is ‘a righteous status from God’; and this is not, as we saw, God’s own righteousness. (104)
Likewise, it would be nice to hear someone else pointing out the holes in the following:
2 Corinthians 5:20-21
2 Corinthians 5:20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the dikaiosune theou.
I have left the last, critical phrase untranslated. This time it is certainly ‘the righteousness of God’; and generations of readers have taken it to be clear evidence for a sense in the lower left half of the diagram, most likely B1a. I have pointed out in detail elsewhere [n.b.: this discussion is found in Pauline Theology, ed. David M. Hay, Fortress Press, 1993], however, that Paul is not talking about justification, but about his own apostolic ministry; that he has already described this in chapter 3 as the ministry of the new covenant; that the point at issue is the fact that apostles are ambassadors of Christ, with God making his appeal through them; and that therefore the apostolic ministry, including its suffering, fear and apparent failure, is itself an incarnation of the covenant faithfulness of God. What Paul is saying is that he and his fellow apostles, in their suffering and fear, their faithful witness against all the odds, are not just talking about God’s faithfulness, they are actually embodying it. The death of the Messiah has taken care of their apparent failure; now, in him, they are ‘the righteousness of God’, the living embodiment of the message they proclaim.
This reading of 2 Corinthians 5:21 ties the verse so closely in to the whole surrounding context that it thereby demonstrates its correctness. If, however, you insist on reading 2 Corinthians 5:21 with a meaning in the second half of the diagram – presumably B1a, ‘imputed righteousness’ – you will find, as many commentators have, that it detaches itself from the rest of the chapter and context, as though it were a little floating saying which Paul just threw in there for good measure. The proof of the theory is in the sense it makes when we bring it back to the actual letter. (105)
“Briefly and baldly put, if you start with the popular view of justification, you may actually lose sight of the heart of the Pauline gospel; whereas if you start with the Pauline gospel itself you will get justification in all its glory thrown in as well.” (113
If you respond that the entire epistle to the Romans is a description of how persons become Christians, and that justification is central there, I will answer, anticipating my later argument, that this way of reading Romans has systematically done violence to that text for hundreds of years, and that it is time for the text itself to be heard again. Paul does indeed discuss the subject-matter which the church has referred to as ‘justification,’ but he does not use ‘justification’ language for it….Paul may or may not agree with Augustine, Luther or anyone else about how people come to a personal knowledge of God in Christ; but he does not use the language of ‘justification’ to denote this event or process. (117)
“In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.” (119) (Those who have listened to the AAPC’s emphasis upon “corporate election” and baptism can see the connection here.)
“First, within the law-court setting, the ‘righteousness’ which someone has when the court has found in their favour is not a moral quality which they bring into court with them; it is the legal status which they carry out of court with them. Second, we saw that this legal status, the ‘righteousness’ of the person who has won the case, is not to be confused with the judge’s ‘righteousness.’ These implications have, ironically, been missed often enough by the very theologians who have tried to insist on the forensic (law court) nature of the doctrine.” (119)
Referring to 1 Corinthians 1:30 Wright opines, “It is the only passage I know where something called ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ,’ a phrase more often found in post-Reformation theology and piety than in the New Testament, finds any basis in the text.” (123)
One is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. One is justified by faith by believing in Jesus. It follows quite clearly that a great many people are justified by faith who don’t know they are justified by faith. The Galatian Christians were in fact justified by faith, though they didn’t realize it and thought they had to be circumcized as well. (159)
Forgive me for thinking that maybe, just maybe, these statements present a form of NPism that somehow managed to get a “pass” in the most current edition of Credenda Agenda.