A Defense of the
Old Perspective on Paul
Did St. Paul Really Say?
The following is transcribed from a seminar given by
Phil Johnson at the London Reformed Baptist Seminary, meeting at the
Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, on 10 January 2004.
In this hour, I want to give you a brief
critique of a theological trend that began on your side of the Atlantic and is
rapidly gaining influence among evangelicals in America.
It is a point of view known as "The New
Perspective on Paul." Some of you will be familiar with that label. It's
the nickname for a school of thought that suggests we need to overhaul our
interpretation of the Pauline epistles and completely revamp our understanding
of the apostle Paul's theology. And that, in turn, obviously, has serious and
far-reaching ramifications for all of New Testament theology.
I hesitate to label the New Perspective a movement,
because it lacks the cohesiveness of a movement. At this point, it's a loose
aggregate of similar opinions. The three New Testament scholars who are the
leading advocates of the New Perspective don't entirely agree with one another
on some of the most basic points of Christian doctrine. Two of the three don't
even claim to be evangelicals.
There's no single spokesperson for the view,
and no organization exists to propagate it.
And yet the influence of the New Perspective
has been felt profoundly across the spectrum of Christian denominations—including
the evangelical world, where the New Perspective has recently been embraced and
propagated by some surprising advocates.
The New Perspective has been promoted in
America, for example, by John Armstrong, of Reformation and Revival ministries.
He was once regarded as a champion of historic, confessional particular Baptist
theology. Now he is aggressively peddling the New Perspective on Paul in his
journal, in his newsletters, and in his conferences.
And there is currently a division between
conservative Presbyterians in America over this issue. One church in Monroe,
Louisiana—The Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (a church affiliated with the
largest evangelical Presbyterian denomination in America)—has for the past
three years been host to an annual conference featuring speakers who are mostly
sympathetic to the New Perspective. One smaller Presbyterian denomination (The
RPCUS) has declared the teachings of the Auburn conference "heresy."
And the result has been widespread debate and confusion.
Meanwhile, all over the Internet, you'll
find dozens of Web sites devoted to propagating the New Perspective—and other
Web sites devoted to exposing its errors. Because of the complexity of all the
issues involved, it's not an easy controversy to sort out.
So in this hour, I want to begin to acquaint
you to this controversial point of view and give you a critical review of a
short book that is probably the single most influential popular, lay-level
presentation of the New Perspective. It's a book by N. T. Wright, titled What
St. Paul Really Said, published in the UK by Lion, and in America by
I mentioned already that there are three
leading spokesmen whose names are most frequently associated with the New
Perspective. Tom Wright is one of these. And as far as grassroots-evangelical
support for the New Perspective is concerned, he is by far the most influential
voice of the three. He is the only one of the three who considers himself an
Tom Wright was canon theologian of
Westminster Abbey until last year. Now he is the Bishop of Durham (which I
believe makes him the fifth highest ranking bishop in the Church of England).
He is also very a prolific writer, having written more than 30 books. The last
time I was in the bookshop at Westminster Abbey, the shelves were filled with
titles by Wright—and they run the gamut from technical and academic works to
popular-level books like What St. Paul Really Said. He has also written
a popular series of soft-cover commentaries published by SPCK and targeting an
audience of lay people. So he is quite gifted as a writer; he is able to
communicate on almost any level; and his works are easy to read and often
The other two leading advocates of the New
Perspective on Paul are E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn. Those are names you
are undoubtedly familiar with if you have paid attention to the academic world
of New Testament studies. Sanders is formerly a professor of Exegesis at
Oxford, now on the faculty at Duke University. I believe Dunn is on the faculty
at Durham University.
Sanders is the one who first rocked the
world of New Testament scholarship in 1977 with his seminal work titled Paul
and Palestinian Judaism. That book was the first major statement of the New
Perspective. Dunn, on the other hand, is the one who coined the expression
"the New Perspective on Paul" during a lecture in 1982. But neither
of those men could be classed as evangelical in any meaningful sense. Both
Sanders and Dunn reject the Pauline authorship of Paul's pastoral epistles, and
both of them would repudiate many of the doctrines you and I would deem
essential to Christianity, starting with the authority of Scripture. So the
roots of this movement spring out of a rationalistic tradition that is overtly
hostile to evangelicalism—and the view itself would probably hold no interest
whatsoever for rank-and-file evangelicals if it were not for the influence of
N. T. Wright.
Wright calls himself an evangelical; he
apparently comes from an evangelical background (I believe his first published
work was a chapter in a book published by the Banner of Truth Trust); and
Wright has won favor in some evangelical circles by defending the historicity
of Christ against the rank liberalism of the Jesus-Seminar brand of New
Testament "scholarship." Wright is unquestioningly accepted as an
fellow evangelical by many in the broader evangelical movement. So his work is
without a doubt the single factor most responsible for bringing the New
Perspective on Paul into the evangelical arena.
Just five years ago, the New Perspective was
unfamiliar to almost everyone outside the academic world. Over the past few
years, however, partly because of the Internet, and partly through the
influence of Tom Wright's popular-level books, the New Perspective on Paul has
become more and more familiar to evangelical pastors and lay Christians, and it
has become the focus of brewing controversy almost everywhere it has gone in
the evangelical world.
So, what is being taught by those who
advocate the New Perspective on Paul? In a nutshell, they are suggesting that
the apostle Paul has been seriously misunderstood, at least since the time of
Augustine and the Pelagian controversy, but even more since the time of Luther
and the Protestant Reformation. They claim first-century Judaism has also been
misinterpreted and misconstrued by New Testament scholars for hundreds and
hundreds of years, and therefore the church's understanding of what Paul was
teaching in Romans and Galatians has been seriously flawed at least since the
time of Augustine.
I think you'll agree that's a pretty
audacious claim. Here are four important ways they say Paul has been
First, regarding first-century Judaism,
the New Perspective on Paul claims that the Judaism of Paul's day was not
really a religion of self-righteousness where salvation depended on human works
and human merit. So we've misunderstood Paul because we have misunderstood what
he was up against. The Pharisees weren't legalists after all, it turns out. But
they have been misunderstood by biased exegetes who erred because they
superimposed Augustine's conflict with Pelagius and Luther's conflict with
Roman Catholicism onto their reading of Paul's conflict with the Judaizers.
Instead, according to the New Perspective,
there was a strong emphasis on divine grace in the Judaism of Paul's time, and
the Pharisees were not really guilty of teaching salvation by human
merit. This is the one basic point upon which Sanders, Dunn, and Wright are all
in full agreement. They base that claim primarily on their study of
extrabiblical rabbinical sources, and they treat the matter as if it were
settled in the world of New Testament scholarship—even though it seems to me
that there are still plenty of weighty New Testament scholars who would
strongly disagree with them. But that's the starting point of their view:
first-century Judaism was not legalistic after all. For centuries, Christians
have simply misunderstood what the Pharisees taught.
Second, regarding the apostle Paul, the
New Perspectivists are very keen to absolve Paul from the charge of
anti-semitism—and therefore they deny that he had any serious or significant theological
disagreement with the Jewish leaders of his time. Obviously, if the religion of
the Pharisees was a religion of grace and not human merit, then Paul would have
had no fundamental disagreement with them on the doctrine of salvation.
But Paul's real controversy with the Jewish
leaders, we are told, had to do with the way they treated Gentiles. His
conflict with the Judaizers and the Pharisees had to do more with racial and
cultural differences than with any kind of soteriological debate. They tell us
that Paul's great concern actually was for racial harmony and diversity
in the covenant community. So the only significant complaint Paul had with the
Pharisees and the Judaizers was their racial and cultural exclusivity.
Third, regarding the gospel, the New
Perspective on Paul claims that the gospel is a message about the Lordship of
Christ, period. It is the declaration that Christ, through His death and
resurrection, has been shown by God to be Lord of creation and king of the
cosmos. We would agree that this truth is an essential feature of the New
Testament gospel, of course. But we would not agree with advocates of the New
Perspective when they say the gospel is therefore not really a message
about personal and individual redemption from the guilt and condemnation of
To quote Tom Wright (p. 45 of What St.
Paul Really Said), "[The gospel] is not . . . a system of
how people get saved." He writes, "The announcement of the gospel results
in people being saved. . . . But 'the gospel' itself, strictly
speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus." "[The gospel
is] the announcement of a royal victory" (p. 47).
[By the way, I'll quote Tom Wright several
times in this hour, and I'll try to remember always to give page numbers.
Almost every quote I'll cite comes from this book, What St. Paul Really Said.
So we can save some time if I just give you page numbers.]
Ultimately, the New Perspective divests the
gospel of—or downplays—every significant aspect of soteriology. The means of
atonement is left vague in this system; the issues of personal sin and guilt
are passed over and brushed aside. The gospel becomes a proclamation of
victory, period. In other words, the gospel of the New Perspective is decidedly
not a message about how sinners can escape the wrath of God. In fact,
this gospel says little or nothing about personal sin and forgiveness,
individual redemption, atonement, or any of the other great soteriological
doctrines. Soteriology is hardly a concern of the New Perspective—even when
they are dealing with the gospel message.
And that brings me to a fourth
characteristic of the New Perspective—and this is where I want to spend the
remainder of our time. This is the issue of how the New Perspective deals with
the doctrine of justification by faith and the principle of sola fide.
The New Perspective claims that traditional
Protestant Christianity has seriously confused and distorted what the apostle
Paul taught about justification by faith. According to the New Perspective,
when Paul wrote about justification—especially when he wrote about
justification—his concerns were (once again) corporate, national, racial, and
social—not individual and soteriological.
According to them, the doctrine of
justification as taught by the apostle Paul has very little to do with personal
and individual salvation from sin and guilt. Justification, they say, doesn't
really pertain to soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation. It fits
more properly in the category of ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the
To quote Tom Wright again, "What Paul
means by justification . . . is not 'how you become a Christian,' so
much as 'how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family'" (p.
122). On page 119, he says,
in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship
with God. It was about God's eschatological definition, both future and
present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders' terms, it was
not so much about "getting in," or indeed about "staying
in," as about "how you could tell who was in." In standard
Christian theological language, it wasn't so much about soteriology as about
ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church."
Again, and at every opportunity, the
emphasis on personal and individual sin is minimized or denied. The gospel is
not really a message about redemption from sin and personal guilt; it is simply
and only the declaration that Jesus is now Lord over all. Justification is not
mainly about sin and forgiveness; it's about membership in the covenant
community. And when you're done reading everything that has been written to
promote the New Perspective, the issues of personal guilt, individual
redemption, and atonement for sin have hardly been dealt with at all. These
great soteriological doctrines are left in a fog of uncertainty and confusion.
As I said, this issue of justification by
faith is where I want to focus our attention in the remainder of the time we
have together today. I believe the greatest and most immediate danger posed by
the New Perspective on Paul lies in their redefinition of the doctrine of
justification by faith. I'll leave it to others to answer the New Perspective
on historical grounds. [D. A. Carson has made a good start answering the claim
that Protestant interpreters have historically misrepresented first-century
Judaism. He is editing a two-volume academic work titled Justification and
Variegated Nomism. The first volume, subtitled "The complexities of
Second Temple Judaism" is already available, answering the historical
argument about the nature of Judaism in Paul's day. A second volume, subtitled
"The Paradoxes of Paul," will deal with the exegetical issues raised
by the New Perspective.]
But what I want do today is address this
specific claim that the doctrine of justification, in Paul's theology, is
all about the Gentiles' standing in the covenant community—rather than about
the individual's standing before God as it relates to sin and forgiveness.
This is a total redefinition of
justification. And I'll tell you at the outset that I'm convinced it is
impossible to harmonize N. T. Wright's New Perspective and the historic
Protestant creedal understanding of justification by faith.
Now, the most conservative defenders of N.
T. Wright and the New Perspective often insist that they do affirm what
the great Protestant creeds teach regarding justification, and some of them
have taken great pains to try to find language in the Westminster standards and
other creeds that they can interpret as an affirmation of their views. But
having read several such treatments and dialogued at length with some of these
people, it is my conviction that when they are finished trying to reconcile
their views with the historic evangelical and Protestant view of justification
by faith, all the main issues are left confused and muddled rather than
clarified. That's because the New Perspective's view of justification is
radically and fundamentally different from the teaching of Reformational
Christianity. And I hope to show you why.
In order to deal with all of this in the
abridged form our time allows, I'm going to quote selectively a few of the most
troubling statements made by Tom Wright in his little book What St. Paul
Really Said. I realize What St. Paul Really Said is Wright's popular
treatment of the subject, and as such it is not as thorough and perhaps not as
precise as his more academic works. I also know from prior experience that
people who are sympathetic to the New Perspective will claim I have not really
understood Wright or given him a fair and thorough reading. They will fault me
for quoting selectively. They will also point out various places where Wright
tries to qualify elsewhere what I find objectionable in this book. OK, I
recognize the limitations of this one-hour lecture format, and I will concede
up front that I am not even attempting here to respond to the full corpus of
Tom Wright's published works.
On the other hand, since this work is a
popular distillation of Wright's perspective on the apostle Paul, aimed at
serious lay people and pastors, I presume his aim was to convey his
thoughts the clearest and most unambiguous language. This book is supposed to
be a non-academic introduction to the New Perspective and a simple digest of
the New Perspective's most important ideas, so I'm going to respond to it on
that basis—in a non-academic fashion, trying to deal with the big ideas and not
getting bogged down in side issues and technicalities.
I don't pretend that I'm making a full,
careful academic reply to Wright. But all I have time to give you today is a
brief summary of why Wright's New Perspective is problematic, and point out the
major things to be on guard against in his work. So I hope you'll bear with me,
and let no one claim I'm pretending this brief lecture is anything more than it
Now, no doctrine is more important in
Protestant theology that the doctrine of justification by faith. This was the
material principle of the Reformation, the central issue over which Rome and
the Reformers fought and ultimately split. But if Tom Wright and his New
Perspective are correct, Luther badly misunderstood the apostle Paul and
seriously misconstrued the doctrine of justification. He was mistaken on the main
issue. That is a very serious charge, but it is precisely what the New
Perspective suggests. A corollary is that they are also claiming that they are
the first people since the early church Fathers who have correctly understood
the Pauline epistles. I do want to point out that that's an extremely bold
stance to take—especially since it's a view that was spawned by the work of E.
P. Sanders, who doesn't even accept the Pauline authorship of most of Paul's
But I digress. In What St. Paul Really
Said, Wright includes a chapter titled "Justification and the
Church," in which he says (113) that the traditional Protestant doctrine
of justification "owes a good deal both to the controversy between
Pelagius and Augustine in the early fifth century and to that between Erasmus
and Luther in the early sixteenth century" but (according to Wright) the
historic Protestant view of justification "does not do justice to the
richness and precision of Paul's doctrine, and indeed distorts it at various
Wright is expressly arguing against a
Reformed understanding of justification, and he repeatedly insinuates that
Protestants need to rethink the whole doctrine and re-tool our teaching in
light of his new understanding of what Paul really meant. He claims
(117) that the classic Protestant understanding of justification has resulted
in a reading of Romans that "has systematically done violence to that text
for hundreds of years, and . . . it is time for the text itself to be
But Wright's own doctrine of justification
is seriously deficient. I believe he is at odds with Scripture on at least four
major points related to this issue of justification alone. I'll start with the
most basic one:
1. His definition of justification
I've already given you a basic description
of how Wright portrays the doctrine of justification. Here's how he states it
in his own words. Page 115: "The discussions of justification in much of
the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot—at
least in terms of understanding Paul—and they have stayed there ever
since." Page 120; he writes:
Despite a long
tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the
question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian or attains to a
relationship with God. (I'm not even sure how Paul would express, in Greek, the
notion of 'relationship with God', but we'll leave that aside.) The problem he
addresses is: should ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? Now this question
is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and
Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone's reading, but especially within
its first-century context, [the problem] has to do, quite obviously, with the
question of how you define the people of God. Are they to be defined by the
badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way?
And so he says
(122), "Justification, in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that
all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their
racial differences, as they together wait for the final new creation."
So according to Wright, justification is
more a corporate issue than a personal one; it has more to do with the identity
of the church than with the standing of the individual before God.
When Wright does connect the doctrine
of justification with the individual's standing before God, it is nearly always
in contexts where he is speaking of "final justification," which
takes place in the eschatalogical future, at the last judgment, when God judges
men according to their works. In an article he has posted on the Web titled
"The Shape of Justification," Wright refers to this future
justification and cites as a proof text Romans 2:13 ("Not the hearers of the law
are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.") Thus
Wright and other New Perspective writers tend to confuse the question of
whether the believer's standing before God depends in some part on our own
works, or whether Christ's work on our behalf is the sole and sufficient ground
of our justification. More on this later if time permits.
In my view, the way Wright speaks of this
"future dimension" of justification is careless and unclear. Though
he strenuously denies that justification is a process, one gets the distinct
impression he believes the individual Christian's standing before God is not
truly settled until the final judgment, and then it will depend (at least in
part) on the believer's own righteous works. That is almost precisely the very
point over which Rome and the Reformers fought their most important battles. If
Wright is not on the Roman Catholic side of that issue, he certainly is not
on the Reformers' side.
By the way, in that same article on the
World Wide Web, Wright insists that the doctrine of justification by faith is
"a second-order doctrine," not an essential doctrine of Christianity.
It seems to me that even if we accepted Wright's redefinition of justification,
the text of Galatians—and especially the anathema of Galatians 1:8-9—still
seems to make the doctrine of justification a first-order doctrine.
Here's a second problem I find with Wright's
teaching on justification
2. His description of "the works of the law"
Galatians 2:16 uses this expression
"the works of the law" three times in a single verse. Listen: "Knowing that a man is not
justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we
have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of
Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no
flesh be justified." There are three other references to "the
works of the law" in Galatians and one in Romans 9:32, and in each case,
the apostle Paul's point is the same: legal obedience has no saving efficacy.
Galatians 3:10: "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse."
Obviously, the historic Protestant position
has been that these very texts prove that Paul was arguing that the law
condemns sinners and therefore their own efforts to obey the law cannot save
them. Meritorious works of any kind are antithetical to grace. That is
precisely what Paul states in Romans 11:6: "if by grace, then is it no more of works:
otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more
grace: otherwise work is no more work."
But Tom Wright says that we need a new
understanding of what Paul meant when he spoke of the works of the law. In his
paper, "The Shape of Justification," he defines "the works of
the law" as "the badges of Jewish law-observance." He says Paul
is speaking of circumcision, the dietary laws, and so on.
He is echoing Dunn, who wrote this:
"Works of the law' are nowhere understood here, either by his Jewish
interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works which earn God's favor, as
merit-amassing observances. They are rather seen as badges: they are simply
what membership of the covenant people involves, what mark out the Jews as
God's people. [What Paul denies in Galatians 2:16 is that] God's grace extends
only to those who wear the badge of the covenant."
In other words, Paul isn't saying
that meritorious works in general contribute nothing to our justification. His
point is only that the distinctly Jewish elements of Moses' law don't guarantee
covenant membership, and they cannot be used to exclude Gentiles from covenant
membership. Or to put it as concisely as I can, Wright is suggesting that
Galatians 2:16 and other texts like it are not intended to deny that
meritorious human works have any role whatsoever in justification.
And according to Wright (122), that means
that "Justification, in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all
who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial
differences." So Paul is not arguing against meritorious works; he is
arguing against racial exclusivity.
Notice carefully: Wright at this point is
not explicitly arguing that a person's works do provide grounds for his
righteous standing before God; he is merely arguing that the standard
proof-texts against such a doctrine prove no such thing. And so once again, he
stands against the Reformers and on the Roman Catholic side of the
justification debate. And he at least leaves the door open for human merit as
part of the grounds for our "final justification."
I have to move on. Here's a third point on
which I believe Tom Wright is at odds with Scripture on the doctrine of
3. His distortion of "the righteousness of God"
This is a huge issue in What St. Paul
Really Said, and I haven't nearly enough time to deal with it thoroughly,
but I must at least mention it. Wright has a major section discussing
the meaning of the phrase "the righteousness of God," beginning on
page 95 of his book. In summary, he says—of course—that Protestants have always
misunderstood the concept of divine righteousness. God's righteousness is his
"covenant faithfulness." It is not (102) "something that
'counts before' God or 'avails with' God." It's not something God can
either impart or impute to sinners. When Scripture speaks of God's
righteousness, it's using the expression as a synonym for His covenant
And Wright is so hostile to the notion of
righteousness as something that counts with God that he goes so far as to
paraphrase the traditional concept of righteousness out of Philippians 3:9
completely. In the actual text, Paul says that His great hope as a Christian is
to "be found in
[Christ], not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that
which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by
faith:" But according to Wright (124) Paul is really "saying,
in effect: I, though possessing covenant membership according to the flesh, did
not regard that covenant membership as something to exploit; I emptied myself,
sharing the death of the Messiah; wherefore God has given me the membership
that really counts, in which I too will share the glory of Christ." So
righteousness becomes "covenant membership."
Quickly, a fourth and final complaint I have
with Tom Wright's treatment of justification is—
4. His denial of imputation
Over and over again, Tom Wright assaults the
classic Reformed and biblical doctrine that the righteousness of Christ is
imputed, or reckoned, to the sinner's account, and it is on the ground of
Christ's righteousness alone that we obtain our righteous standing
Wright says that's nonsense. He writes (98),
"If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to
say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers
his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is
not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the
Writing against the historic Reformed
doctrine of imputation, he says, "If we leave the notion of
'righteousness' as a law-court metaphor only, as so many have done in the past,
this gives the impression of a legal transaction, a cold piece of business,
almost a trick of thought performed by a God who is logical and correct but
hardly one we would want to worship."
Well, I, for one, am quite happy to worship
a God who justifies the ungodly and who is both just and the justifier of the
one who believes in Jesus.
How would I answer Wright and the New
Perspective biblically in 90 seconds or less? I would point out first of
all that our understanding of First-century Judaism ought to come primarily
from Scripture itself and not the musings of twenty-first century scholars who
themselves refuse to bow to the authority of Scripture. Tom Wright has erred by
lending more credence to the scholarship of men like Sanders and Dunn than he
does to the testimony of Scripture.
I think, for example of the parable about
the Pharisee and the publican—one of the best clues about what Scripture really
means when it speaks of justification. The parable describes the justification
of an individual before God. And Luke 18:9 says Jesus told that parable "unto certain which trusted in
themselves that they were righteous, and despised others." The New
Perspective suggests that this kind of self-righteousness wasn't really a
problem with the Judaism of Paul's and Jesus' time. Scripture plainly states
otherwise. In fact, if we allow the gospel accounts to inform our understanding
of the Pharisees' religion, rather than selling out to the scholarship of E. P.
Sanders, we must come to the conclusion that the old perspective
of first-century Pharisaism is the correct one.
Second—and likewise—our understanding of Paul's
doctrine of justification ought to come from the text of Scripture and not from
questionable first-century rabbinical scholarship. To cite just one text that
is impossible to reconcile with the New Perspective, listen to Acts 13:38-39,
where we have Luke's record of how Paul preached the gospel in Antioch. After
mentioning the resurrection, Paul said, "Be it known unto you therefore, men and
brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: [Clearly, the gospel Paul proclaimed is about personal
forgiveness after all. And notice how he equates the forgiveness of sins with
the doctrine of justification:] And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye
could not be justified by the law of Moses."
Romans 4:4-5 is another passage that, when
exegeted correctly, demolishes N. T. Wright's New Perspective on justification.
Third, notice that in the book of Romans,
Paul's starting point for the gospel is divine wrath (Romans 1:17), and Paul
begins his systematic treatment of gospel truth with almost two full chapters
on the problems of sin and guilt. It seems rather clear to me that Paul had a
very different notion of the gospel and the doctrine of justification than N.
T. Wright does.
Fourth and finally, I think it's ironic that
N. T. Wight and other proponents of the New Perspective invariably complain
that Luther and the Reformers were guilty of reading a conflict from their own
time back into the New Testament. My answer would be that N. T. Wright and friends
are doubly guilty of reading their own notions of twenty-first-century
political correctness back into the text of the Pauline epistles. And the view
they have come up with has a distinct post-modern slant. It is a perfect
postmodern blend of inclusivism, anti-individualism, a subtle attack on
certainty and assurance, and above all, ecumenism.
What they are really suggesting is that the
apostle Paul was driven more by social and ecumenical concerns than by a
concern for the standing of sinners before God. The New Perspective on Paul is,
at the end of the day, an ecumenical, not an evangelical, movement.
By the way, Wright is totally frank about
his ecumenical motives. Near the end of the book (158) he writes,
of justification by faith impels the churches, in their current fragmented
state, into the ecumenical task. It cannot be right that the very doctrine
which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong at the same table
(Galatians 2) should be used as a way of saying that some, who define the
doctrine of justification differently, belong at a different table. The
doctrine of justification, in other words, is not merely a doctrine in which
Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of hard
ecumenical endeavour. It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that
rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupings, and which
declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in the one family.
. . . The doctrine of justification is in fact the great ecumenical
moreover, that those of us who regard justification as central to the debate
between Protestants and Catholics "have turned the doctrine into its
Frankly, I am happy to stand with Augustine,
and Luther, and the rest of the Protestant Reformers—and with the
Old-Perspective Apostle Paul—against the likes of doctrine like this.
I'm surprised, and very sorry, that a
novelty like this is seducing so many men who profess to be Reformed in their
theology. But in my assessment this doctrine does not build on the advances of
the Protestant Reformation. Rather it aims at destroying the Reformation at its