Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul
By Cornelis P. Venema
Banner of Truth Trust, 2006
92 pages plus preface and advertisements
In one form or another, the topic of the “New Perspectives on Paul” came up over a short period of time and I realized that I do not have much to contribute to the conversation being that I am uninformed as to what the “new perspective” entails. Some folks claim that this is a “raging debate” among evangelical Christians and others portend a much subtler affinity to the contest. Largely, this debate exists among scholars of New Testament and Systematic Theology at the seminary level as I have not seen many pastors seeking to challenge either view from the pulpit. However, just because I have not been exposed to the arguments in a preaching setting does not mean that they are not out there somewhere. All this said, I am thankful that I picked up Dr. Venema’s little ditty which is a MUCH condensed version of his then forthcoming book and since published Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ: An Assessment of the Reformation and the New Perspectives on Paul, also published by the Banner of Truth. (Oh, hello there Steve!)
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema is the president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN and also serves as the professor of systematic theology. Given the name of the seminary that he leads, you can imagine that he believes in the “classic Protestant view” which he says that believers are “justified before God by grace alone (sola gratia) on account of the work of Christ alone (sola Christo), and this free justification becomes theirs by faith alone (sola fide)” (7). The remainder of Getting the Gospel Right is thus a brief explanation of the reformation perspective on justification, an overview of three of the leading “new perspective” theories, and finally a refutation of the new perspective based on a literal, grammatical, historical form of exegesis. In short, the New Perspective is the idea that when Paul wrote concerning the law he was referring to what it means to be a part of the community, not necessarily a refutation of the legalistic Judaism that was ruling the day (as the classical Protestant reformation view holds). This may seem to be an issue of semantics, but what is at stake is a true understanding of what the gospel is and is not and what in fact makes it “good news.”
Venema offers a brief explanation of the three “sola” statements that characterized the reformation’s perspective on justification during which he offers that “the Reformers [Luther and Calvin specifically]regarded the question of justification not as one question among many, but as the religious question, the paramount question in life and death” (10). Thus, the way that we answer and define what justification is and is not has bearing on the totality of our Christianity; and, according to the reformers (whom with which I would agree) is an indication as to whether or not we are indeed a Christian at all.
Venema then attempts to sum up the contributions of EP Sanders, JDG Dunn, and NT Wright to the new perspective theory acknowledging that they are considered to be experts in this field and collectively have helped the new perspectives to take shape.
According to Venema, Sanders believes that the reformation view wrongly understands Second Temple Judaism as a legalistic religion whereas he points to writings that indicate the Second Temple Judaism “was fundamentally a religion of grace” (28). Dr. Venema then poses this question: “If Judaism was not a legalistic religion, what are we to make of Paul’s vigorous arguments against claims to find favour with God on the basis of works?” (29). Venema then explains that Sanders offers the idea that Paul saw Christ as the solution to the human sinful condition (which He is) and he then formulated his doctrine of the law to conform to the notion that Christ was the fulfillment of the law and therefore, Savior of the world. I need to read Sanders firsthand before I can truly make a judgment on this, but if Venema represents him accurately, this would be contrary to the idea that the human condition is sinful, the law reveals man’s inability to conform to it requirements, and therefore, man is in need of a savior because he cannot save himself.
Venema then offers an overview of the works of James DG Dunn who, similar to Sanders, believes that the reformers did not have a proper understanding of Paul’s relationship with Judaism. Dunn brings this further, however, by stating “that Paul was objecting to Jewish exclusivism and not legalism” (33). In other words, Dunn understands Paul to condemn “the ‘works of the law’ to exclude Gentiles from membership in the covenant community” (33). Basically, Gentiles were “unable” to perform the works of the law because they did not have the Law in their background and the Jews were seeking to keep the Gentiles out of the covenant community because of their lack of skill or knowledge of the law.
NT Wright, Bishop for the Church of England, is the final proponent of the New Perspectives that Dr. Venema takes issue with
.“One of the unfortunate features of the Reformation and of much evangelical thinkng, according to Wright, is that they reduce the gospel to ‘a message about “how one gets saved”, in an individual and ahistorical sense’[…and] the basic message of Paul’s gospel focuses upon the lordship of Jesus Christ […] Rather than the salvation of individual sinners, the theme of Christ’s lordship is the primary focus of Paul’s preaching” (39, 40, 41).The prevailing idea of Wright’s view on the New Perspectives, according to Venema, is that the phrase “righteousness of God” refers to “his covenantal faithfulness in action” (43). Further, “[Wright] maintains that the Reformation’s idea of the imparting of God’s righteousness to believers makes no sense” (43). Venema then quotes Wright as saying, “Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom” (43). Justification is then, according to Wright, “about who belongs to the number of God’s covenant people” (46). Again, if Venema represents Wright accurately, I would need to disagree with the Bishop in that justification is represented throughout the new testament as a legal declaration of right standing (or at least the need to be) in front of God. This justification is only achieved through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ who then imputes His righteousness to those who call upon Him for the salvation of their souls. This imputation should not be understood to deal with the inward qualities of an individual, but of the legal standing only. Sanctification confronts the inward change that is to be wrought by the Holy Spirit after regeneration while justification is solely to be thought of in terms of legality. Yes, in a sense, it does result in “who belongs” for those who have not been justified do not “belong” to the community of believers, but the doctrine of justification must first be considered in light of its soteriological function (salvation) before its ecclesiological (church).
Dr. Venema sums up his understanding of the gospel of grace by sharing a concise statement of Biblical truth that resonated within my spirit to the sounds of joy:
“Against the background of the Old Testamen idea of God’s righteousness, the apostle Paul is affirming that the gospel of Jesus Christ reveals God’s judicial action in securing the righteous status of his people before him. What is remarkable about the gospel of God’s righteousness in Christ is that God has, in the Person and work of His Son, entered into judgment on behalf of the ungodly (Rom 4:5). All who receive the free gift of right standing with God on the basis of the work of Christ, are beneficiaries of God’s righteousness. They are freed from condemnation and accepted by God, the Judge. God’s righteousness reveals His covenant faithfulness to secure His people’s salvation, to be sure. But it especially reveals God’s powerful intervention in His own court to grant a righteous status to believers on the basis of Christ’s work on their behalf” (73-74).As stated before, this is a wonderful example of Biblical, gospel truth and I would do well to read this little passage every day!
Getting the Gospel Right is a good introduction into the concepts of the New Perspectives on Paul and I hope to read more this year. I have not personally read any contribution by Sanders, Dunn, or Wright and therefore have only attempted to offer the manner in which Dr. Venema has represented these scholars.
For another review on this same title visit David Booth.
Also, for an interesting Q&A concerning NT Wright visit here.
Or Read a review approved by Banner of Truth
Friday, February 02, 2007
Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul