Engaging NPP with Pastoral Concerns and Confessions of Faith
Someone suggests that we should ignore controversial scholarship represented by N.T. Wright and NPP if deprives us of our child-like faith. We should instead focus on more productive matters like evangelism. But, surely wrong teachings must be corrected as they distort our understanding of faith and invariably give rise to wrong practices. For example, NPP claims that Paul could not be addressing legalist perfectionism since first century Judaism, described as ‘covenantal nomism’ was not a legalistic religion. If NPP is correct, it will be necessary to discard the Reformation understanding of justification as God’s answer to the futility of seeking righteousness through works of the law.
Evangelicals cannot simply retreat into a safe cocoon of faith that is indifferent (and possible afraid of) to genuine scholarship. Evangelicals may not simply appeal to authority to settle theological controversies as final authority rests on Scripture alone. This being the case, evangelicals must work hard to master the primary sources, offer constructive criticism of NPP scholars, and publish robust exegesis to demonstrate why the evangelical doctrine of justification provides a more coherent reading of Scripture than NPP.
Evangelicals should take note that the works of NPP scholars like E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and N.T. Wright have been seriously challenged by a series of published doctoral theses like Mark Elliott, The Survivors of Israel: A Reconsideration of the Theology of Pre-Christian Judaism (Eerdmans, 2000), Simon Gathercole, Where is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5 (Eerdmans, 2002). You will find Seeyoon Kim’s resolute in his critique in Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Eerdmans 2001). Best of all, we can now benefit from the two massive volumes on Justification and Variegated Nomism edited by D.A. Carson, Peter O’Brien and Mark Seifrid (Eerdmans, 2001 & 2004). Readers should familiarize themselves with the writings by Richard Gaffin, John Piper, Stephen Westerholm and Douglas Moo for their critique of NPP. Finally, for a positive exposition of the doctrine of justification, one should read Thomas Schreiner, The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters (Zondervan 2015).
The problem for the Malaysian church is that up till now, no one has highlighted these evangelical scholarship on Paul and early Judaism, while the works of the NPP are freely promoted in the media and in regional theological institutions. It is time to redress this imbalance and educate the local churches to realize that the NPP is not as well-founded as it claims to be – despite the impressive scholarship and mesmerizing oratory of Wright.
Perhaps the best response to NPP is to test its claims in a pastoral context. I refer to the good words of John Stott in his critique of Sanders. Stott readily applauds the learned scholarship of Sanders. However, Stott uses Sanders words against him. First, Stott cites Sanders, “The possibility cannot be completely excluded that there were Jews accurately hit by the polemic of Matthew 23 … Human nature being what it is, one supposes that there were some such [legalism]. One must say, however, that the surviving Jewish literature does not reveal them.” Stott then delivers the coup de grace,
For our fallen human nature is incurably self-centred, and pride is the elemental human sin, whether the form it takes is self-importance, self-confidence, self-assertion or self-righteousness. If we human beings were left to our own self-absorption, even our religion would be pressed into the service of ourselves. Instead of being the vehicle for the selfless adoration of God, our piety would become the base on which we would presume to approach God and to attempt to establish a claim on him. The ethnic religions all seem to degenerate thus, and so does Christianity. In spite of the learned literary researches of E. P. Sanders, therefore, I cannot myself believe that Judaism is the one exception to this degenerative principle, being free from all taint of self-righteousness. As I have read and pondered his books, I have kept asking myself whether perhaps he knows more about Palestinian Judaism than he does about the human heart [emphasis added].” /8/
Undoubtedly, the extant literary sources display diversity in Second Temple Judaism. However, regardless of this diversity, the epistles of Paul show that the legalistic stream of Judaism was dominant enough to elicit a major response from him. The controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels corroborates with Paul epistles to confirm that grassroots, ‘popular religion’ at New Testament times was indeed legalistic. It would appear that legalism was more prevalent than what scholars like E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and N.T. Wright are willing to acknowledge. Perhaps there is more discrepancies between ‘popular religion’ confronted by Paul and Jesus and the NPP’s literary construct or ‘high religion’ of early Judaism.
The thrust of John Stott’s gentle criticism of Sanders is that Paul is best understood not from the lenses of sophisticated literary constructs of early Judaism, but from the lenses of Paul’s confrontation with legalistic scribes and from his pastoral concerns for the common folks who responded to his preaching. That is to say, the final test for biblical scholarship or theology is not in its literary sophistication but in its power to address the quiet desperation of the human heart to bring conviction, conversion and consolation in the grace of Jesus Christ.
It is fully understandable that Wright as a conscientious bishop and community leader emphasizes the social dimensions of salvation. Undoubtedly, the new emphasis by the NPP provides helpful resources in the rapprochement between Judaism and Christianity that is vital for a post-holocaust world. But one wonders if Wright in his passion for social Christianity and in his excitement about Christian participation in the eschatologically (new) redeemed world has ended up neglecting the individual or personal dimensions of salvation.
It would be good if Wright or his followers elaborate on how their emphasis of the covenantal aspects of justification bears on the personal experience of forgiveness of sin and its transformative power that comes from assurance of faith. Otherwise, the challenge posed by John Piper remains unanswered,
It may be that in his own mind and heart Wright has a clear and firm grasp on the Gospel of Christ and the Biblical meaning of justification. But in my judgment, what he has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God./9/
The Presumption of Catholic (universal corporate church) Interpretation
Wright is one of the most learned scholars in biblical studies today, but we are willing to disagree with him respectfully. After all, in guarding the good deposit of faith (2Tim.1: 14) it would be wise to give the presumption of correct doctrine to the historic confessions of faith like the Westminster Confession of Faith, Thirty-Nine Articles and the Augsburg Confession etc. as they are the fruits of centuries of collective theological reflection forged in the midst of theological controversies and pastoral concerns.
This presumption of correct interpretation is in the spirit of Thesis 8 of Vanhoozer’s “10 Theses” explained in my earlier post: In an era marked by the conflict of interpretations, there is good reason provisionally to acknowledge the superiority of catholic [universal corporate church] interpretation.
It is fitting that I end with the teaching of three great Confessions of faith:
A. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530). Article 4. Of Justification
Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.
B. The Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles (1571). Article 11.
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
B. The Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). Article 11
1. Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
2. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.
3. Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, in as much as He was given by the Father for them; and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for any thing in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice, and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.
IV. God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit does, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.
V. God does continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of His countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.
8. John Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (IVP Academic, 2001), p. 29.
9. John Piper, The Future of Justification. p. 15]. Wright’s book Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (SPCK, 2009) is supposed to be written as an answer to Piper, although he qualifies his response no so much as a direct response but as an outflanking exercise. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the blurb by Scot McKnight that Wright “has out-Reformed America’s newest religious zealots – the neo-Reformed – by taking them back to Scripture and to its meaning in its historical context”, Wright in no way addressed Piper’s careful exegesis. Instead he far afield. In effect, his flanking exercise ends up as an evasion. [Talk about writers doing each other a favor in publisher’s blurbs!]