Tuesday, October 22, 2002

The New Perspective

This is an introduction and the first of a series of planned posts on the "New Perspective". The posts will not come one day at a time, as this is a complicated subject.

My Position

I’ll state my position ahead of time, so there are no misunderstanding. I disagree with the New Perspective. I will try to write fairly, but my bias will always be there, lurking just beneath the surface, and sometimes out in the open.

In all my posts I try to simplify what is often presented as complex. Sometimes I am guilty of oversimplification, and that is a danger here. However, I remain convinced that nothing in the Bible is so complex that an ordinary person cannot understand it. I believe this applies to the topic of justification (which is what this debate is ultimately about). A doctrine on justification, which is clearly of great interest to any believer, should (and I readily admit this is but a gut-feeling) be easy to state and easy to support with scriptural references.

New Perspective on What?

The first question is, what is it that there is a "new perspective" on? That should be an easy question, but nothing in this debate comes easy.

In fact, this topic goes by at least three "New Perspective" titles:
  1. A New Perspective on New Testament era Judaism
  2. A New Perspective on Justification
  3. A New Perspective on Paul

The first title is the most accurate, the second the most provocative, and the third the most common. There is a very new view on the practices of first century (technically, Second Temple) Jews. This has resulted in a change in perspective on justification for some Reformed Christians. However, it is only a new perspective on justification for the Reformed; it terms of overall Christianity it is actually an old perspective. In the same sense, it is a new perspective on Paul, in that his teachings are viewed differently than historically they have been by Reformed Christians.

The bottom line in all of this, and what I see is an inescapable conclusion of the New Perspective, is that Luther was wrong in his view on justification. If the NPers are correct, then his view of justification, which has been the cornerstone of Reformed theology, was flawed. As we will see, the argument is that Luther (and many who followed) was a victim of a misunderstanding about the practices of the first century Jews. More precisely, it is alleged that he was mistaken in his interpretation of what Paul taught about those practices.

The Nature of the Debate

The debate on the New Perspective is an embarrassment to the entire community. There are old perspective (OP) proponents accusing new perspective (NP) types of heresy. Some on the NP side accuse the OPers of worshipping creeds, sloganism, general nonintellectual thinking, and worshiping dead heroes (although one could argue that in a like-manner they worship live heroes). It is really very ugly, and to be honest many involved in the debate, on both sides, could benefit from a good swift kick to the butt.

Also, those on the NP side differ in many of their views. A tendency on the OP side is to attack the most outrageous claims of anyone purporting to be a NPer, in an attempt to impugn the whole group. Likewise the NPers often focus on the heresy charges as evidence that the OPers are incapable of a reasoned argument. The bottom line is that it is far easier to find an uncivil debate about the debate, rather than a cogent discussion of the points. Real debate has been obfuscated by ad hominem attacks. I will ignore some of the more radical views of some NPers, and just look at the differences with those NPers who are otherwise considered mainstream by the majority of the community.

Faith and Works

This age-old tension between faith and works is central to this discussion. The Reformed position has always been that works are not meritorious in terms of one’s justification (Eph. 2:8-9). Yet there is no small amount of New Testament scripture that talks about us being judged, good or bad, for our works (2 Cor. 5:10). The answer to these passages has always been, for the Reformed Christian, that works are evidentiary. They are related to sanctification and not justification, which is purely forensic, i.e., a legal declaration that, in and of itself, does not change one's nature.

The doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone (Sola Fide) in many ways hinges on two veins of scripture:
  1. Scripture that teaches we are justified by faith in Christ (which is a gift).
  2. Scripture that teaches it is faith alone, by eliminating the possibility that works are involved.
It is the later point that is, in effect, being questioned.

First Century Judaism

Much of the "alone" part of Sola Fide stems from Paul's writings about first century Jews. They are rebuked for believing in a works-based salvation. In refuting the efficacy of works, Paul leaves us with faith alone as the basis for our justification (Rom. 3:27-28, Rom. 4:2, Gal. 2:16).

This rests, to a large extent, on the certainty that Paul was in fact accusing the Jews of practicing a works-based salvation. If Paul's criticism of the Jews was actually about something else, then those teachings cannot really be applied, at least in a straightforward manner, to supply the "sola" to Sola Fide.

And that is bad news. Because as our Catholic friends like to point out, the only place in the Bible where we actually find the phrase "faith alone" is James 2:24, where at first glance James appears to be repudiating the beloved doctrine.

At the heart of the NP movement is the view that Paul was not criticizing Jews for their works-based view of salvation, but for their boasting in their special status before God. This in turn is based on a study of non-biblical documents about Second Temple (~515 B.C. to 70 A.D.) Judaism. It is claimed, as I understand it, that these documents show that the Second Temple Jews believed that their right-standing before God was a gift of mercy, but they maintained their place in the covenant by persevering in faith, and in works.

I have read some who say that this (or something close to it) is what the historic writings contain. I have also read some who say this represents selective extractions from the documents. I am at a disadvantage because I have neither the time nor skills necessary to perform my own analysis.

Some liberal scholars (some of which call themselves NPers) claim this demonstrates that the Bible is not inerrant. According to this argument, Paul misrepresented the Jews (which, considering his life before conversion, is more than a little absurd). Conservative NPers do not question biblical inerrancy; rather they question Luther’s interpretation of sacred scripture.

Do not underestimate the importance of the question of the Second Temple Jews. The NP view says that the classic (call it Lutheran if you like) take on New Testament era Judaism is incorrect. Yet the classic Reformed view on justification is supported, to a large extent, by an reading of scripture that requires the interpretation that those Jews practiced a meritorious-works religion. There is a lot at stake here. If the NPers are right and Luther is wrong, then indeed we must reformulate our view of justification.

Once again, the chain of logic is this:
  1. Paul was not critiquing Jews for believing a merit-based doctrine on justification.
  2. That, at best, weakens the use of the relevant scriptures in supplying the sola to Sola Fide.
  3. That, in turn, weakens Sola Fide.

What I Want is not Relevant

I don't want Sola Fide to be weakened. I consider it to be what makes the Good News good. However, that is irrelevant—the only thing that matters is what the scriptures teach. It is interesting to me that it is Jesus, not Paul, who nicely frames this debate:
9 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 "The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' 13 "But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' 14 "I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14, NASB)
The question is not who was justified, Jesus makes that clear. The question before us, because of its relevance in understanding the Pauline epistles, is: Was it the Pharisee, who clearly believed in salvation by works, or the Publican, pleading for grace, who was representative of 1st century Judaism?

I cannot read Hebrew or Greek so I am at the mercy of others who can. One thing that I am certain of: If, in scripture, Paul was not criticizing Jews for their merit-based salvation then either the translators thoroughly bungled the job or the Bible is very poorly written, for I think great violence must be done, at least to all the English translations of which I am familiar, to conclude otherwise.

What do the NPers say about works?

It is actually very hard to pin them down and to get clear answers that are not overly encumbered by ill-defined covenantal terminology. What they say is very similar to the Catholic position, or to what they claim was the Jewish position. Namely that we are justified by faith, and that faith produces good works, so the works are an outcome of mercy-- so far so good. However, the works not purely "evidentiary", they are in some sense real, and your covenantal standing depends on the works. But what does that mean? If I am out of the covenant have I lost my salvation, similar to having a mortal sin on my concience? If so then I need the works to persevere. That is certainly not faith-alone. If losing my covenantal standing does not mean I lost my salvation, then what have I lost? It must be something other than my salvation. If it is merely temporal or even eternal rewards (but not my salvation) then there is nothing new here, and the NPers have been hoisted with their own petard, because they still affirm Sola Fide while at the same time undermining its scriptural support.

My Criticism of the NPers

I do not have harsh criticism of the NPers. My main complaint is that they want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to claim Reformed theology, at least in terms of Luther’s view on justification, has gotten it wrong, but they still want to be Reformed. But in my opinion, Reformed Theology has Sola Fide as understood by Luther (and as found in scripture), as its cornerstone; it is much more central to what it means to be Reformed than the more abstract covenantal theology. Maybe Reformed Theology is wrong, but the point is that what the NPers are teaching is not Reformed. Give up the label. Why do you cling to it so dearly?

They also insist they do not weaken Sola Fide but that they have a new understanding of it. Some deny (in what seems to me to be an honest concession) the related doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Some argue for "phases" of justification, of which the initial (but no longer once-and-for-all) forensic justification plays its part, as do subsequent justifications-by-works leading up to the final judgment. Works, say other NPers, are (these amazing feats that are) only "in a sense" evidentiary, yet they are by no means meritorious. But how can that be?

If Sola Fide is not what we thought, then the new view of it either strengthens or weakens it. But it really cannot be strengthened, nor do they claim it is, so it must be weakened.

Much more to come.

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