What Is At Stake? An Assessment of Nicholas Perrin's Criticisms of Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul

Article by   August 2006


In the Fall 2005 issue of the Westminster Theological Journal, Dr. Nicholas Perrin published a review of my book, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (J&NPP).[i] The WTJ invited me to reply to Perrin's overwhelmingly negative review. This reply was published in the Spring 2006 issue, alongside Perrin's response to my reply.[ii] Perrin's second contribution concluded that particular exchange. This second contribution raised a number of new issues to which I was not offered the opportunity to respond in the WTJ. Hence, I am grateful to the editor of Reformation21 who has extended to me the opportunity to offer some remarks on this interchange. As I frame these comments, I will not assume that the reader has read this dialogue in the WTJ. In what follows, I will give an overview of the issues raised in the WTJ articles. I then will reflect on three issues in particular broached by Perrin in his second reply: epistemology, the proper relation of what Perrin terms "history" and "theology," and the nature of Second Temple Judaism.

J&NPP argues that the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) are soteriologically incompatible with the confessional Reformed theology expressed in the Westminster Standards. The NPP's and the Westminster Standards' understandings of the doctrines of grace cannot be reconciled. Perrin argued in his review that J&NPP had misunderstood the NPP. "We have in Justification and the New Perspectives an author," Perrin claims, "who seems to be demanding a methodology from his opponents they would never be interested in using, demanding answers to questions they are not interested in asking, and demanding language they simply do not speak."[iii] Had J&NPP been more sensitive to NPP proponents' methodology, questions, and language, Perrin suggests, it might have been in a position to conceive "how implications from NPP research may build upon, modify, challenge, or subvert the confessional stance forged by the Westminster divines."[iv] (Of course, J&NPP had no intention of subverting the Westminster Standards. It sought, rather, to uphold them as summaries of biblical truth). Perrin offered examples from J&NPP which he believed illustrated his criticism.

In my response, I observed the following. First, a number of Perrin's criticisms of J&NPP could have been averted had he attended more carefully to the book's details and argument. Second, Perrin manifested an unwillingness to engage the exegetical arguments set forth in J&NPP. Although implying the potential soteriological compatibility of the NPP and confessional Reformed theology, Perrin sidestepped the very questions that J&NPP presented as central to the debate - the nature of the believer's "righteousness" in justification, and the office of faith in justification. Third, Perrin was unconvincing in his assertion that to assess the exegetical conclusions of Dunn and Wright in terms of the doctrine of the atonement or of justification by faith alone is a category mistake. These doctrines, after all, have been formulated as summaries of biblical teaching on the topics in question. It is therefore hardly comparing apples and oranges to measure an interpretation of a particular verse or verses against the overall pattern of biblical teaching.

Perrin's second reply is disappointing in some respects and illuminating in others. It disappoints the reader who is looking for a response to the concern that I raised in my reply to Perrin's review that he had misread the book at crucial points. It disappoints the reader who continues to look for exegetical engagement of the arguments of J&NPP. Notwithstanding the author's explanations,[v] one carries away the distinct impression that Perrin deems the exegesis of the relevant texts to be peripheral to the debate.

It is illuminating in the way in which Perrin's second reply sets forth three concerns that he conceives to be crucial to the debate. His first concern pertains to an epistemological question; the second pertains to the proper relation of "history" and "theology;" and the third to the nature of Second Temple Judaism. It is revealing that Perrin believes that these three issues are crucial rather than and to the exclusion of imputed righteousness and the sole receptivity of faith in justification. The implications he draws from these three issues are even more illuminating. We will see that Perrin's views on one of these three issues compromise the biblical and confessional teachings on sola scriptura (Scripture alone). Let us take up each of his three concerns in turn.

The Epistemological Question

Perrin vigorously defends Wright's conception of story and what he terms "storied logic." He explains:

[Wright] is not saying, as some postmodernists do in a dichotomizing fashion, that storied logic is

superior to or somehow trumps the logic of propositional discourse. Wright is seeking to develop a methodology that avoids imposing post-Enlightenment categories. He does this by making the assumption (one widely granted since Ricoeur and in my mind intuitively true) that people, at a very basic and reflexive level, make sense of their lives through stories. Our work and play, our day-to-day routine and conversations, our support for or against the war, our decisions to marry or take this job rather than that one - all these things are playing out an internal story.[vi]

Perrin then offers an example:

If I ask Mr. Waters why he goes to church on Sunday, I rather doubt he would answer me with a syllogism. (I hope he would not do so!) Instead, he might say something like this: "Well, there's a story behind this. 'It's a story I love to tell.'" Yes, this logic is different from the 'logic of textbooks' (thank God for that), but it is rather silly to set this order of cognition against the claims of 'conventional logic', whatever that is. Wright certainly does nothing of the kind.[vii]

Perrin asserts in these excerpts that "storied logic" is basic or fundamental to human thought.[viii] He goes so far as to claim that this epistemology is "intuitively true." His own example, however, does not sustain his claim. In response to Perrin's question ("why [one] goes to church on Sunday") one would expect a biblically literate Christian to respond in the following way: "Because the Lord has said 'Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy...'" He quotes, in other words, the Fourth Commandment. To be sure, such a Christian would remember that this commandment was observed by Adam in the garden (Gen 2) and by Israel in the wilderness (Exod 16); and formally promulgated on Mt. Sinai (Exod 20). He knows that this commandment occupies an important place in the unfolding historical narrative of the Scripture. But he knows this as a rational being who thinks in the fashion that his Maker has created him to think. He thinks fundamentally in terms of propositions. He can think in no other way. His understanding of biblical narrative must therefore be fundamentally propositional in nature. It is one thing to say that God has revealed himself in a book that, with respect to its genre, is chiefly narrative. It is quite another thing to say, with Perrin, that human thought is at its most basic level narrative in character. Perrin appears to have confused a literary question with an epistemological one.

What about Wright himself? Let us quote more extensively from the paragraph which we excerpted in J&NPP.

But what about Paul? Surely he forswore the story-form, and discussed God, Jesus, the Spirit, Israel and the world in much more abstract terms? Was he not thereby leaving behind the world of the Jewish story-theology, and going off on his own into the rarefied territory of abstract Hellenistic speculation? The answer is an emphatic no. As has recently been shown in relation to some key areas of Paul's writing, the apostle's most emphatically 'theological' statements and arguments are in fact expressions of the essentially Jewish story now redrawn around Jesus. This can be seen most clearly in his frequent statements, sometimes so compressed as to be almost formulaic, about the cross and resurrection of Jesus: what is in fact happening is that Paul is telling, again and again, the whole story of God, Israel and the world as now compressed into the story of Jesus. So, too, his repeated use of the Old Testament is designed not as mere proof- texting, but, in part at least, to suggest new ways of reading well-known stories, and to suggest that they find a more natural climax in the Jesus-story than elsewhere.[ix]

Perrin insists that Wright here is "responding to ... the Old Liberal notion of Paul, popularized by Harnack, which suggested that the apostle had distorted the original essence of Christianity by imposing his Hellenistic thought-forms. [Rather,] all such attempts to make Paul out to be a systematic theologian (in the modern sense, not the same thing as a theologian who happens to be systematic) are equally misguided."[x] Wright then promotes a "contrast" but not a "dichotomy" between "Jewish story-theology" and "the rarified territory of abstract Hellenistic speculation."[xi]

Is this, however, what Wright is saying? It is unlikely that Wright is targeting his concerns cited above strictly to a criticism of Harnackian Liberalism: "[A]ll worldviews are at the deepest level shorthand formulae to express stories ... Belief in one god [sic], who called Israel to be his people, is the very foundation of Judaism. The only proper way of talking about a god [sic] like this, who makes a world and then acts within it, is through narration. To 'boil off' an abstract set of propositions as though one were thereby getting to a more foundational statement would actually be to falsify this worldview at a basic point."[xii] Wright's concern, then, touches the theological project at a fundamental level and extends beyond a specific refutation of classical Liberalism.[xiii]

Other statements also illustrate how Wright conceives narrative and proposition to exist in a non-complementary relationship. He claims that "[s]tories are often wrongly regarded as a poor person's substitute for the 'real thing', which is to be found either in some abstract truth or in statements about bare facts." The misconception, in other words, is that "a story is there to 'illustrate' some point or other which can in principle be stated without recourse to the clumsy vehicle of a narrative."[xiv]

What does this look like in practice? We may offer an example that Wright provides. "Like so many theological terms, words like 'monotheism' are late constructs, convenient shorthands for sentences with verbs in them, and ... sentences with verbs in them are the real stuff of theology, not mere childish expressions of a 'purer' abstract truth."[xv] To argue this way, however, suggests that propositions, while having their own place, are nonetheless not essential to theology in its truest or purest sense. They are not themselves the "real stuff of theology." In the task of theology, then, Wright privileges narrative to the detriment of proposition. This relationship is decisively non-complementary.

The Relation of "History" and "Theology"

A second area of concern is the relation of what Perrin terms "history" and "theology." One instance in J&NPP, cited in Perrin's second reply, where I am said to have transgressed the proper relation between the two, warrants quotation in full.

Waters seems to be saying ... 'Let's not confuse ourselves with texts outside the Bible. When thinking about Paul, let's stick to what the Bible says.' In his rejoinder, Waters agrees that it is inappropriate to impose 'a systematic-theological conclusion upon a particular text independently of a text's ascertained meaning' (137). But by ruling out or at least minimizing the evidentiary force of Second-Temple literature on the grounds of its non-canonical status, he has already forced 'a systematic-theological conclusion upon a particular text independently of a text's ascertained meaning.' A historian ascertains meaning by gathering and comparing all relevant data. Waters, by contrast, seems to want to start with a theological prolegomenon (canonical sources are the only ones that count) and then move from there to doing history. This might be good theology (I am no theologian, but doubt that it is); this is certainly not good history.[xvi]

Let us consider how Perrin conceives the work of "history" and "theology." They are to Perrin fundamentally different tasks. It is the task of history to "gather and compare all relevant data." One can hardly object to such a definition as this. What is objectionable is the manner in which Perrin proceeds to define, or rather to fail to define, what constitutes relevant data. Perrin says that to "minimiz[e] the evidentiary force of Second-Temple literature on the grounds of its non-canonical status" is to import illegitimately the work of theology into the work of history. This is to "start with a theological prolegomenon (canonical sources are the only ones that count) and then move from there to doing history."

Such an approach is open to at least one major objection. Perrin's argument compromises the principle that Scripture alone must interpret Scripture, or, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly" (I.9). Scripture, Perrin claims, is insufficient to interpret other Scripture. If Scripture is to be interpreted aright, then texts outside the Scripture (the non-canonical Second Temple literature) are necessary. The question is not whether non-canonical Second Temple texts are of value in establishing an historical and literary background to the New Testament. The question is whether those texts are necessary to the interpretation of the New Testament itself, and whether those texts may play a controlling role in establishing the meaning of any given verse. Perrin's reply to this question puts him out of step with the doctrine of sola scriptura.

Perhaps one might object at this point: "Waters, haven't you imposed your doctrine of sola scriptura upon the biblical text? Aren't you guilty precisely of what Dr. Perrin has claimed you have done in J&NPP?" My reply is that I have not imposed my doctrine upon the text of Scripture. The reason I have not done this is because I have drawn my doctrine from the text of Scripture. Fidelity to the Scripture requires that its own statements about itself govern our reading, interpretation, and application of the Scripture. This task is as "historical" as it is "theological." I am unable to segregate "history" and "theology" in the fashion that Perrin and many scholars working in the historical-critical tradition have done because the Scripture will not permit it.

The Nature of Second Temple Judaism

A final area broached in Perrin's second reply concerns the nature of Second Temple Judaism. This concern is tied to his objection that J&NPP has confused the categories of history and theology.

As Waters sees it, Second-Temple Judaism adhered to a belief system that was not gracious, but semi-Pelagian. One reason we know that it was not a gracious religion, according to Waters, is because the rabbis inquired as to why God had elected Israel. The very fact that the rabbis were asking this question shows that they conceived "God as electing a person on the grounds of his or her foreseen or actual deeds" (quoting J&NPP, 55-56). This is "not gracious in the biblical sense" (ibid.). But many theologians would disagree with this last statement: God is not gracious solely because it pleased him solely to be so; God is gracious on the grounds of someone's actual deeds, namely, Christ's. I do not see the rabbis as being wrong, unbiblical, or self-righteous in asking the question. The question is altogether appropriate and makes perfect sense within a gracious "system of theology." (That is, unless Waters thinks that Charles Hodge maintained a non-gracious system of theology). The point is this. Waters is inferring the legalistic nature of Second-Temple Judaism in part on the basis of their discussion of election. What he fails to see is that this historical judgment is strongly conditioned by his personal theological judgments.[xvii]

It is Perrin's contention that asking the question "why did God elect us?" is not necessarily indicative of a non-gracious system of salvation. He implies, further, that we cannot rule out in principle works-based election since our election is based upon the works of Christ. The first claim is not to the point, and the second point is based upon a theologically incorrect observation.

In this excerpt, Perrin alleges that J&NPP's assessment of Second-Temple Judaism has been "strongly conditioned by [Waters'] personal theological judgments." This is so because J&NPP is said to have faulted the rabbis for asking the question why God elected Israel. In fact, J&NPP does not fault the rabbis for asking this question simpliciter. It faults them for the particular answers that they supplied to this question. For the rabbis, election was "at least partially grounded on the merits of the patriarchs or Israel's foreseen obedience."[xviii] It is these answers to which J&NPP pointed as evidence of its claim of legalism.

Perrin's argument further falters in its premise. His premise is that election is grounded upon the works of Christ. One might be surprised to see a professing Calvinist offer a characteristically Lutheran doctrine of election.[xix] For Lutherans, election is based upon the work of Christ. For Calvinists, election is "according to [God's] eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will" (WCF III.5). We may agree with Perrin that "God is gracious on the grounds of someone's actual deeds, namely, Christ's." A thoroughly gracious salvation comes to the believer on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ. Perrin, however, has confused "election" with "salvation" - while they certainly must not be separated, neither are they to be identified.

The doctrine that election is based on human works, whether in whole or in part, counters the teaching of the Scripture. J&NPP argued that the rabbinic literature puts forward precisely such teaching as evidence for its conclusion that first-century Judaism taught a less-than-thoroughly-gracious salvation.

So how does Perrin conceive the nature of first century Judaism? He states it both positively and negatively:

[P]rogressive revelation forbids a facile comparing of pre-messianic and post-messianic "systems," as if we were comparing apples with apples. Is Paul criticizing Judaism because it is a full-grown tree that fails to produce good apples? Or is he criticizing Judaism because it is a sapling that refuses to become a tree? Whereas I suspect that Bultmann and Waters would opt for the former, I maintain the latter.

I believe, in other words, that Paul is upset with his contemporary Jews not because of the self- righteousness inherent in their views of election or made manifest by their lack of assurance; he is upset because they have rejected their full rights as heirs. Now on one level, this rejection of Christ may arise out of a self-righteousness (ultimately all rejection of Christ does), but this does not entail that Paul saw Judaism as being self-righteous in essence ... If Judaism had really sunk into a system of legalistic works self-righteousness, how then does one explain such characters as Anna, Simeon, and Elizabeth? Were they just oddballs? And if they were, then what was it about their belief-system that set them apart from their contemporaries?[xx]

This excerpt is of interest because it evidences Perrin recoiling from the implications of his own position. His position is that Paul's critique of first century Judaism is directed towards its relative immaturity and its refusal to enter into maturity, not because of its embrace of a doctrine of works-righteousness. He will state elsewhere in this reply that "[Paul's] argument is that [the Judaizers] have missed the great salvation-historical shift that has occurred. As a result, their 'works of the law' are a misdirected attempt to locate themselves within the Mosaic covenant. By attaching themselves to the Mosaic covenant, the Judaizers risked forfeiting the soteriological and ecclesiological blessings of the New Covenant."[xxi] Perrin, however, cannot escape classifying first century Judaism in terms of "self-righteousness," however much he attempts to distance himself from that conclusion. If "all rejection of Christ" "arise[s] out of a self-righteousness," and if the majority of Paul's Jewish contemporaries rejected Christ, then how can Perrin avoid the conclusion that he has thereby represented first century Judaism "as being self-righteous in essence"?

Perrin has difficulty accounting not only for the apostle Paul's representation of first-century Judaism, but also for the Lord Jesus Christ's representation of first-century Judaism. In the parable of the prodigal son, the exasperated words of the elder brother (surely representative of much of first-century Judaism) to the father ("Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends," Luke 15:29) do not commend first-century Judaism as thoroughly gracious. Neither does the Pharisee's prayer in our Lord's parable of the Pharisee and the publican (18:11-12, "God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all I get.").

"What of Anna, Simeon, and Elizabeth?" Perrin asks. "Were they just oddballs?" In reply, we may note that the Gospels represent their faith and their piety as unusual within the first century. The fact that Anna is distinguished as among "those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38) suggests that her biblical faith and piety was by no means representative of first century Judaism.

Consider other testimony from the Gospels. "He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him" (John 1:10-11); "This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil" (John 3:19); Such was the crowds' misunderstanding of Jesus and His kingdom that they were "intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king" (John 6:15). While recognizing a believing remnant within Judaism, the New Testament's overall appraisal of Second Temple Judaism is far more pessimistic than Perrin's own appraisal.

We may be grateful that Perrin recoils from his initial assessment of Paul's objections to first century Judaism ("Paul objected simply because first century Judaism was immature and refused to become mature"). While the New Covenant does mark an important step forward with respect to the maturity of the people of God (Israel was "a church under age," WCF XIX.3), this hardly exhausts, much less constitutes, the essence of the New Testament's objections to first century Judaism.

Perrin not only upsets this balance but compels us, at points, to choose: "Paul's quarrel with the Judaizers is not that they were caught in the web of their legalisms. His argument is that they have missed the great salvation-historical shift that has occurred." [xxii] In view of the testimony of the New Testament, one is justified in concluding that this is a dichotomy that Perrin has forced upon the text of Scripture.


As I stated in my initial reply to Perrin, "Perrin's [initial] review is instructive in manifesting some of the difficulties that attend such efforts to reconcile these two [i.e. NPP and WCF] readings of the apostle Paul."[xxiii] In view of Perrin's second reply, I am not inclined substantially to revise my judgment. Perrin's discussions concerning "history" and "theology" are disconcerting for two reasons. First, they have effectively served as a diversion from issues that are fundamental to the debate: an imputed righteousness and the office of faith in justification. This is not to say that Perrin's intention was to provide a diversion, nor is it to say that his issues have no importance whatsoever. They do. It is to say that they are not the most immediately fruitful avenues for tackling the key issues in a very serious matter.

Second, Perrin's reflections on "history" and "theology" pose a distinct challenge to the Protestant doctrine of Scripture. They have called into question the sufficiency of Scripture. He repeatedly charges that J&NPP has intruded theology into the realm of historical investigation. Such charges assume a method that appears to prohibit the system of doctrine taught in the Scripture from having any meaningful interaction with one's interpretation of the text of Scripture, or vice versa. At stake is whether the Scripture may be said to speak with one voice, to manifest a single system of doctrine. If it does, then surely any exegetical investigation of the Scripture can and must submit itself to the teaching of the whole Scripture. If it does not, then exegetical and theological chaos is sure to follow.

The WTJ exchange with Perrin has been instructive. It is regrettable that it has raised more concerns than it has allayed in considering the NPP. It remains to be seen how Perrin reconciles his professed Calvinism with his sympathy for the exegetical and theological conclusions of key NPP proponents. I remain persuaded that, in the points in question, there can be no reconciliation.

[i] Dr. Perrin currently serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College Graduate School. He is a PCA Teaching Elder and a former research assistant for N. T. Wright.

[ii] Nicholas Perrin, "A Reformed Perspective on the New Perspective" WTJ 67 (2005): 381-389; Guy Waters, "Rejoinder to Nicholas Perrin, 'A Reformed Perspective on the New Perspective'" WTJ 68 (2006): 133-138; Nicholas Perrin, "Some Reflections on Hermeneutics and Method: A Reply to Guy Waters" WTJ 68 (2006): 139-146.

[iii] Perrin, "A Reformed Perspective," 389.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Perrin states "I hope and trust that my foregoing a detailed response to each of the specific objections is not misconstrued, either as an attempt to be evasive or as a tacit statement that the rejoinder's objections are not worthy of retort." He fears "degenerat[ing]" the discussion "into quibbling without engaging the more substantive issues," "Some Reflections," 139, 140.

[vi] Perrin, "Some Reflections," 140.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] He states in this same section, "stories are the foundation on which other modes of thought operate," "Some Reflections," 140.

[ix] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 79. Excerpts of this passage were quoted at J&NPP, 121.

[x] Perrin, "Some Reflections," 141.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 77. Compare this statement, "The stories which characterize the worldview itself are thus located, on the map of human knowing, at a more fundamental level than explicitly formulated beliefs, including theological beliefs," The New Testament and the People of God, 38.

[xiii] Compare Wright's comments on the interpretation of the parables. "[I]t would clearly be quite wrong to see these stories [i.e. parables] as mere illustrations of truths that could in principle have been articulated in a purer, more abstract form ... [Jesus'] stories, like all stories in principle, invited his hearers into a new world, making the implicit suggestion that the new worldview be tried on for size with a view to permanent purchase." The New Testament and the People of God, 77.

[xiv] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 38.

[xv] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 78.

[xvi] Perrin, "Some Reflections," 142.

[xvii] Perrin, "Some Reflections," 143.

[xviii] J&NPP, 51. For elaboration on this point, see J&NPP, 38-41, 55-56.

[xix] Lutheran theologian John Theodore Mueller writes "The decree of predestination is that essential internal act of the Triune God by which He from eternity, moved only by His grace and the redemption of Jesus Christ, purposed to sanctify and save by faith, through the means of grace, all saints who finally enter into life eternal" Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia, 1934) 177, emphasis mine. "The decree of predestination is an eternal act of God ... who for His goodness' sake ... and because of the merit of the foreordained Redeemer of all mankind ..." A. L. Graebner, quoted at Christian Dogmatics, 178.

Compare the critical comments of Louis Berkhof: "Christ as Mediator is not the impelling, moving, or meritorious cause of election, as some have asserted. He may be called the mediate cause of the realization of election, and the meritorious cause of the salvation unto which believers are elected, but He is not the moving or meritorious cause of election itself," Systematic Theology (4th ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 114.

[xx] Perrin, "Some Reflections," 143-144.

[xxi] Perrin, "Some Reflections," 145. In the next sentence, he states "In arriving at this position, I find myself at points in exegetical agreement with Wright against Waters and at points with Waters against Wright," ibid.

[xxii] Perrin, "Some Reflections," 145.

[xxiii] Waters, "Rejoinder," 133.

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