Getting the Gospel Right

Article by   July 2006

The Banner of Truth Trust has performed an invaluable service for the Christian community by publishing Cornel Venema's little work Getting the Gospel Right. He had previously submitted several well written posts to www.monergism.com on the so-called "New Perspectives on Paul," but this book condenses the essential points of the controversy into a very readable and high informative "must read."

What is of particular value in this book, in my estimation, is the fact that Venema is a seminary president and professor and is writing for the man and woman in the pew. In our day and age we need more of this type of approach.

The book is divided into five sections (Introduction; The Reformation Perspective on Paul; A "New Perspective" on Paul; A Critical Assessment of the New Perspective; and a Conclusion).

In his Introduction Venema quotes C.S. Lewis who said, "Fashions come and go, but mostly they go," to make the point that "If the catholicity of the church means anything, it means that the church should cultivate a profound respect for its inheritance in the faith, and look with suspicion upon present-day theological fads" (p. 1). A wide variety of theologians have warned recently that the modern Church should be skeptical about the notion that "newer is better." I was pleased to hear Venema add his voice to the chorus. In his opening words he also touches on a key matter for our time: we are in dire need of cultivating a profound respect for our theological heritage. As often as not, our tradition is both minimalized and, at times, outright denigrated and ridiculed. Who wants to read a bunch of dead guys?

What was/is the Reformation's take or perspective on the apostle Paul and his teaching on justification by faith? That is the subject of section two of Venema's exposition. In that section, Venema asks and answers three questions: (1) What did the Reformers understand by the terminology of "justification"? (pp. 7-8); (2) Why did they insist that this justification is "by grace alone" on account of the work of Christ alone"? (p. 8); and (3) Why did they also insist that the gracious justification of believers becomes theirs "by faith alone"? (Ibid.) By asking these three questions, Venema has distilled the essence of the Reformation's understanding of what is taught on the pages of Scripture vis-à-vis justification by faith.

The answer to the first question is that the Reformers uniformly taught that justification by faith had to do with a judicial declaration of acceptance with God. The specific words in both the Old and New Testaments unrelentingly point in that direction.

Second, the phrase "by grace alone" is viewed as the basis for free justification. Venema writes, "Though the Reformers believed that the Roman Catholic view confused justification and sanctification by treating justification as though it involved a process of moral renewal, this is not their basic complaint against it. According to the Reformers, the basic error of Roman Catholicism resides in its wrong conception of the foundation of this verdict" (p. 11. Emphasis his.). In this statement, Venema has captured the main components in the historical controversy between Rome and Reformers and, simultaneously, has put his finger on the confusion between justification and sanctification that dominates much of the current debate by the proponents of the New Perspective.

In light of the third question, Venema explains that the Reformers insisted on the notion of "through faith alone" because Scripture teaches that justification is a (free) gift. Both the Reformers as well as some of our modern translations were willing to speak redundantly (gifts are, by definition, free) in order to make the point that faith is the "empty hand" that appropriates all the riches, treasures, and benefits of Christ.

In summary, Venema gives five key features of the Reformation's perspective on justification by faith: (1) The Reformation perspective views justification as a principal theme of the gospel of Jesus Christ (p. 19); (2) The Reformation understanding of justification maintains that it is a primarily theological and soteriological theme (p. 20); (3) The Reformation perspective on justification claims that the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of justification compromised the gospel by emphasizing obedience to the law as a partial meritorious basis for justification (Ibid.); (4) The Reformation perspective insists that, when Paul speaks of "works" or "works of the law", he refers to any acts of obedience to the law, which are regarded as the basis for acceptance with God (p. 21); and (5) The Reformers viewed the righteousness of God, which is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, as something that God freely grants and imputes to believers (p. 22). This summary provides the transition into Venema's investigation of "The 'New Perspective' on Paul."

Two key questions are posed by the proponents of the New Perspective: (1) Is the doctrine of justification as central a theme in Paul's understanding of the gospel as the Reformation suggests, or should a different theme be identified as the dominant feature of Paul's teaching? (p. 23) and (2) Was Paul's relationship with his ancestral religion, Judaism, as uniformly negative as traditional Protestant theology has supposed? (p. 24). Both questions are integral parts of the New Perspective, but it is the latter that has played such an important part in the attempted retooling of Paul's understanding.

To keep matters as simple as possible, Venema cites three of the best known proponents of the New Perspective: E.P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977]), James D.G. Dunn ("Paul and 'covenantal nomism,'" in The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity, [By the time you finish the title, you're halfway through the book!--RG], [Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991]), and the numerous writings of N.T. Wright (probably one of the best known works of Wright is What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997]).

In many regards, Sanders' work was seminal for the trajectory the New Perspective has followed. His study provides a comprehensive survey of much of Jewish literature in the first two centuries and concludes that what is now called "Second Temple Judaism" is best described by the words "covenantal nomism." What do those words mean? Sanders provides an eightfold answer: "The 'pattern' or 'structure' of covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God's promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God's mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God's mercy rather than human achievement" (p. 28, citing Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 422). Sanders concludes in now-famous quotes in theological circles: "It is the Gentile question and the exclusivism of Paul's soteriology which dethrone the law, not a misunderstanding of it or a view predetermined by his background (p. 497).... In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity" (p. 552).

James Dunn is in basic agreement with Sanders' findings, with the proviso that Dunn is convinced that Sanders "failed to provide a coherent explanation of Paul's relation to Judaism (p. 33), which Dunn sets out to correct. One of those corrections is that if we approach Paul from the new view of Judaism, we shall discover that what he was objecting to most was Jewish exclusivism and not legalism (Ibid.). What Dunn is getting at, then, is that "Paul was opposing the ideal that the 'works of the law', observances that distinguish Jews from Gentiles, are necessary badges of covenant membership. Paul objects to the 'works of the law' that served as ritual markers of identity to separate Jews from Gentiles" (p. 34).

Of course, few names typify the New Perspective more than N.T. Wright. He has written extensively on a wide variety of New Testament subjects, but is probably best known for his outspoken position on Paul (cf., for example, What Saint Paul Really Said, cited above). He agrees with Sanders that Second Temple Judaism held no prevalent notion of legalism. Whatever Paul says in the New Testament, he is not talking about legalism (p. 36). Moreover, he also agrees with Dunn that Paul's dispute was a kind of perverted nationalism (p. 37).

In terms of his own assessment of Paul's writings, Wright insists that the question: How do people get saved? is the wrong one. Accordingly, "The gospel does not answer the question of the guilty sinner, 'How can I find favour with God?', but rather it answers the question, 'Who is Lord?'" (p. 39). If you are tracking with Wright then you will notice that this not only constitutes a major paradigm shift but also severely flattens the trajectory of the New Testament understanding of justification by faith. To Wright's mind, the gospel has a far different focus than the Reformation understood. It's important to note that Wright is essentially saying that every Reformer completely missed the New Testament teaching, but he has come along to rectify the situation. In What Saint Paul Really Said, Wright would have us believe that the basic message of Paul's teaching is that "surprising though it might seem, he (Jesus) was therefore the Lord of the whole world" (p. 40, cited by Venema on p. 40).

In the remainder of this section, Venema engages in a point-by-point refutation of the main tenets of Wright's teachings. One of the most notable is Wright's rejection of the notion of imputation of righteousness. Wright maintains, "If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever 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 courtroom" (What Saint Paul Really Said, 99, quoted on p. 45). A fundamental understanding of the gospel will grasp how far-reaching Wright's assertion really is.

For example, in Galatians 3:10-14, Wright is not convinced that Paul is writing about Christ's suffering the curse of the law in the place of his people. "Paul is not talking abut a general work of Christ that benefits sinful Jews and Gentiles alike. The traditional reading of this passage, which takes it to refer to Christ's substitutionary atonement for Jewish and Gentile sinners, is, in Wright's view seriously mistaken" (p. 55, citing What Saint Paul Really Said, 150).

Part 4 of Venema's little book is a critical assessment of the New Perspective. In the first place, Venema is convinced that there has been an exaggerated appreciation for E.P. Sanders' findings. The concept of "covenant nomism" is, in Venema's mind, "a kind of text-book description of semi-Pelagianism," which ultimately exonerates the Reformation and its understanding of justification (p. 64). This is a key observation because Roman Catholic theology is thoroughly semi-Pelagian as is much of modern evangelicalism. Moreover, there are elements of semi-Pelagianism in Sanders', Dunn's, and Wright's works as well as in a number of those who are proponents of what is called the Federal Vision. Venema has hit on a key distinction here that must not be overlooked.

Venema also takes issue with the language of justification employed by New Perspective writers. They insist that justification is "covenant membership" language, yet Venema finds this flattening of the understanding unacceptable, rendering the robust truth about justification woefully inadequate if we insist on such limitations. Wright and others claim that the phrase "righteousness of God" refers to God's covenant faithfulness in action (p. 74). Again, while this may contain particles of truth, it is far too general and imprecise "to capture the specific force of this terminology in Paul's writings" (Ibid.). Covenant faithfulness in action does not really tell us precisely what justification means. In the Pauline corpus we find substantially more about justification that the New Perspective writers suggest. Romans 1-5, for example, delves far deeper into the Christian life than merely answering the question: who belongs to the covenant people of God? Venema summarizes this criticism in the following manner: "For this reason, the problem that is resolved by the revelation of God's righteousness is not whether God is faithful to his covenant, but whether he is in the right when he justifies those who, by virtue of their sin and guilt, are worthy only of condemnation and death. It is not God's faithfulness to his promise that is in question; rather, the question is whether human beings, who are on trial before God on account of their sins and offences, can find favour or acceptance with God" (pp. 76-77).

As he closes his book, Venema finally takes a look at Wright's notion of "final justification." What is that exactly? I want to take a few moments and describe what Wright understands by this phrase, not least because it also plays a key role in the theology of Norm Shepherd and in what is generally called the "Federal Vision" theology. "According to Wright...the final judgment is on the basis of works and represents a kind of final chapter in the believer's justification" (p. 83. Italics mine.). This means, among other things, that "final justification suggests that the present membership of believers in the covenant family of God is suspended upon a yet-future justification" (pp. 83-84). Citing Wright's commentary on Romans (p. 440) we read, "Justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance, not possession [of the law]" (p. 84. Emphases mine.). This type of thinking leads to a bifurcated trajectory with regards to our understanding of justification by faith which means, "Whereas believers enjoy a present justification in union with Christ, they face the prospect of a future justification whose verdict depends upon the quality of their whole life of faith" (Ibid. Italics mine.).

Venema promises an expanded version of his little book in the future. For the time being, however, this work should be read by pastors, elders, church leaders, and laymen alike. He touches on the essentials of the debate surrounding the New Perspective and issues biblical warnings against the teachings of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright.

Cornelius Venema - Pennsylvania: Banner of the Truth, 2006

Review by Ron Gleason

 





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