SERIES: Christ at the Center: The Fulcrum of Biblical Covenantalism –
7. Christ in Biblical and Systematic Theology: Part 7a,
Christ and Systematic Theology
From the things we have already said it is not difficult to see that by placing Jesus Christ at the center of Biblical Theology – a position advocated in these posts and called “Biblical Covenantalism” – it becomes natural to move on to formulating doctrines.
Many both within and without the evangelical tradition have written about the connection between Biblical and Systematic Theology. In fact, perhaps most scholars who are not evangelicals are less than confident that Systematic Theology is a viable exercise at all. The reason for this is their findings in Biblical Theology.
The first post stepped right into matters of Christology (unsurprisingly), Creation, and Ecclesiology. By the end of the second we were on firm Eschatological ground. In the third post I could write:
Hence, the Plan of God outlined in the biblical covenants converges on the crucified Jesus and emerges from the resurrected Jesus!
My contention in Part Two was that the other unconditional covenants were channeled through the New covenant, because the salvation realized under the New covenant ensures covenantal continuity into the kingdom era. Thus, both Soteriology and Providence were in view.
In Part Three: “The Covenant God Incarnate,” I of course dealt with the Incarnation. But I also referred to the interesting surmise of Meredith Kline that the pre-incarnate Christ was the antitype of the bodily form of Adam. Hence, we were dealing with Anthropology.
My discussion of Christ as the Logos in Part Four brought me round again to Creation and the doctrine of God. Included in this chapter was something about the connection of the Word as God with the Bible. I was writing concerning biblical interpretation (Hermeneutics), and so was in the realm of Bibliology. The hermeneutical question; tied as it is with the Person of Christ as Revealor and New covenant; with the Person of the Father as covenant-Maker; and with the Holy Spirit as the Author of Scripture and agent of eschatological new life, points inevitably to the doctrine of the Trinity, and the doctrine of the veracity of God.
In all this I was always on Eschatological ground, as every good Theology is. This led into the important theological issues to do with Israel and the Church, as well as the Nations, and their part in reflecting the Triunity of God (Part Five).
Then in Part Six we returned to the Cross and the offices of Christ. Finally, the Resurrection was viewed as “a glorious anachronism” which points us all to the fervent hope of His appearing and Kingdom.
Although this series could not go into much detail in connecting Biblical Theology to Systematic Theology, I truly hope that I have done enough here to arouse the interest of those who want the Lord Jesus Christ to be central to both disciplines, but who, like me, are not impressed by the pretensions of Covenant Theology, with its overwhelmingly inferential way of “Christotelic” formulations – stuffing Christ into texts where He doesn’t fit; and most Dispensational Theology, where Christ only pops His head in now and again under certain categories of the system.
Biblical Covenantalism brings Christ forward in both disciplines in two main ways. Firstly, by simply paying heed to what is plainly said about Him in the Bible. To recall something said in Part 4a:
I want to make sure that we have established a very strong connection in our minds between the Bible, the world, and the personal Savior who is our Lord. Just as the Bible is His, this world is His and we are His; and all these things exist, in the first place, for Him. He is the judge of all of His creation and He shall rule over all of the creation. This world is of Him, for Him, by Him, to Him. If we’re going to have a scriptural doctrine of the Creation it will bear some correlation to Jesus Christ. I don’t say we must “find Him in it,” only that we must relate it to Him.
The same applies then to the doctrine of the Revelation of God. Here the danger of abstraction becomes a very real one. The teaching about the Bible has got to be in accord with the worldview which springs from the Bible. And, as we hope we have begun to make clear, a world and life view that is a truly biblical one will have to be centered in the Person of Christ.
The Bible puts the Lord Jesus in the middle of everything!
In the second place, and this point calls for some reflection: Christ has been “set forth” (cf. Rom. 3:25) by the Father and exegetes Him (Jn. 1:18). Christ is witnessed to by the Spirit; so that to know the first and third Persons one must go through the second Person. What this yields, I believe, is a starting assumption of doing Systematic Theology first Christo-centrically. Many theologians have started Trinitarianly, and I am not decrying that. But the makeup of Scripture places the access to the Divine Trinity through Jesus Christ. He is the Designer, Creator, Sustainer, Archetype, Savior, Covenant Guarantor, Restorer, King and Judge over all Creation. The Father has willed it be so. The Spirit makes sure it is so. So the Lord Jesus is the means by which Biblical and Systematic Theology live in harmony. As Word and Covenant Jesus Christ puts all around Him in its proper place!
SERIES: Christ at the Center: The Fulcrum of Biblical Covenantalism –
Jesus Christ in Biblical and Systematic Theology
Christ and Biblical Theology
As I bring this study to a close I want to do two things. First, I want to recap on where we’ve been, and to show how Biblical Covenantalism is extremely Christ-focused, but not through any forced theological predetermining or eisegesis. Christ fits within the Story of the Bible so naturally because of His function at the very core of it from beginning to end. One doesn’t have to go looking for Him in every verse, determined to see Him whether He is present or not. I am not advocating such a fallacious course of action. And we must guard ourselves from those who, with pretensions to piety, speak to us about finding Jesus in each verse of each Book of Scripture. Our imaginations were not given us to overlook the obvious while collecting a useless and confusing melange of types, allusions, and the like. These things we have often brought with us and our searching will inevitably be productive if we pretend to discover those things which we have spread so liberally. The truth is, Christ is not in every verse. Nor indeed is he to be found in very many chapters and verses. It is not impious to speak the truth. But the truth can sometimes sound impious to those with a manufactured piety.
These studies have sought to show that Christ’s Person and offices lie behind the Plan and Purposes of God, and that though there are many verses where He is absent, still He cannot be removed from any Act in the Story.
I started out in Colossians 1, There I aimed to show how Paul makes Jesus Christ preeminent, not by employing religious rhetoric, but by simply stating the reality of who Christ is: Creator, Upholder, Owner. Further, the future regeneration of the whole of creation depends on Christ. Thus far the Introduction. But although the apostle is writing of the church’s relation to its Head in Colossians 1, it would be a mistake to limit the fallout of his words to the Church alone. There is more to the Plan of God than the Church, and Christ’s relationship to the New Covenant in His blood proves this (Part 2). We saw that the covenant promises of the Old Testament are guaranteed literal fulfillment through their association with the Coming of Christ to reign on earth. The Second Coming is more important fulfillment-wise, than the First coming, crucial as that was. This is because covenant fulfillment centers in Jesus Himself, who encapsulates the New covenant upon which the other covenants rely. Since the covenants name this world as essential to their purposes, the roles of Christ as covenant guarantor and Christ as Second Adam combine in His earthly reign.
Here we encounter our main thesis (Part 3):
Our main thesis is that Christ will perform all this restorative and promissory work by the New Covenant, which in Him (Isa. 49:8) provides the requisite cleansing unto righteousness that obligates God to fulfill His covenants. This Christ-centered approach is what I call “Biblical Covenantalism.”
The incarnation does more than just make it possible to “kill” the Second Person of the Trinity. It highlights the importance of creation to God, especially God’s image-bearer. Simply put, if there were no incarnation there could be no resurrection. If no resurrection, then no hope would remain for us, and God’s telos in making the world would have fallen into nothingness.
Part Four now displays the worldview implications of all this. He is the measure of all things. But He is also the way of seeing all things correctly. The last two posts in Part Four try to tie together the outside world as created and upheld and redeemed by Christ with the actual hermeneutics of Christ as found in the Gospels; the one confirming the other. This sets us up for Part Five where the teleological and eschatological goals of creation and redemption take on a triadic appearance in the coming Kingdom. This is in line with covenant expectations too. The triadic peoples of God image the Trinitarian God whose stamp appears on everything.
In Part Six I rehearsed the Cross and Resurrection work of Jesus to remind us that all our value and all our hope is in Christ.
Thus, Christ is ubiquitous, even if He is not in every verse of Scripture. Big things as well as small things find there anchor in His Person and covenant work. And it is this fact of the pervasiveness of Christ in a Biblical Theology built mainly upon the covenants of Scripture that lends ‘Biblical Covenantalism’ its coherence and its power. These two things, as we shall show, make it natural to go from biblical Theology into a Christ-centered Systematic Theology.
Abiding with Eternal Fact
In The Great Divorce a repentant liberal tells an stuffy and impenitent Bishop that, if he will rethink his pretensions about religion, he will take him to meet “Eternal Fact, the Father of all other facts.” The cleric disdainfully turned down the offer, preferring to remain under the delusion that “God” and “fact” do not dwell on the same plane of objectivity. It is a strange deception indeed which constructs a grand array of “facts” and suspends them over a bottomless chasm, but that is what sinners do with facts. They encounter them; they label and categorize them; but they attempt to ground them in the ether of a wholly impracticable worldview.
That is how I was before I met “Eternal Fact.” My dealings with Truth were occasional and, from my point of view, impersonal. And it was this impersonal view of Truth which gnawed away at me; for impersonal conceptions of Truth eventually depersonalize everything – even the viewer. They may seem impressive to our eyes for a while, but just as an attempt at landscape painting may please us until we set it alongside a Constable or a Monet, so truth without “the Spirit of Truth” gradually begins to look like a paltry thing. Truth (capital ‘T’); the kind that “shall make you free” (Jn. 8:32), springs forth from the “I AM” (Jn. 8:58).
It is hard for me to overestimate the importance that the concept of personal truth has played in my life since I became a Christian. From the first I understood that my life was either a grateful acceptance of Truth and the claims of its Source upon me, or a denial of both it and of Him. So I began to read the Bible over and over. At every opportunity, whether at work or in a traffic jam, I would snatch a few verses. For several years I kept up an average of about ten chapters a day in my pocket King James Version, so that after a few years I found that I knew it better than many believers who had been Christians for twenty or thirty years. I could not understand their dilatory attitude toward the Word of God. I confess I still don’t.
After my dad left home when I was 13 my world turned upside-down. I sank into a depression which lasted until I was about 30. Although there were good times, for the most part I was very miserable, lonely, and introverted. On countless occasions I cried myself to sleep at night. The world was two-dimensional. I felt disconnected from everything. When I came to Christ aged 25, my depression, which had become a part of me by then, did not desert me. But I knew the Way, the Truth and the Life. I heard His voice (Jn. 18:37), and it assured me. Although it felt like I was in a dark tunnel underground, I now knew that if I stayed beside the Truth, which included taking my focus off of my feelings, that I was going up, and that one day I would break the surface. I finally “emerged” just prior to going to Seminary. It was Truth – sometimes hard truth, and the God of all Truth, that brought me through. The Truth as it is in Christ was an anchor in the midst of troubled times, my counselor within the gloom, and my hope of something better ahead. It is to Personal Truth that I swear allegiance, however wavering I might be. Not my truth, but God’s truth. Because God’s very essence is the source of Truth, naturally He requires that we, His creatures install that truth “in the innermost being” (Psa. 51:6).
NPP Righteousness versus Pauline Righteousness: The “Works of the Law”
In an excellent piece for Christianity Today entitled, “What Did Paul Really Mean?”, (w/thx to Filops!) Simon Gathercole called attention to the way New Perspective scholars interpret the phrase “the works of the law.” He writes:
According to the new perspective, Paul is only focusing on these aspects of Jewish life (Sabbath, circumcision, food laws) when he mentions “works of the law.” His problem isn’t legalistic self-righteousness in general. Rather, for Jews these works of the law highlighted God’s election of the Jewish nation, excluding Gentiles. Called by God to reach the Gentiles, Paul recognizes that Jews wrongly restricted God’s covenant to themselves.
Gathercole’s comment matches Dunn a little more than Wright, but neither scholar thinks “works of the law” means the achieving of merit through religious deeds. Certainly we can say it is doubtful if many Jews in the Second Temple period were ‘legalistic’ in the sense that they truly believed their works were good enough. But they were still going about to establish themselves by the law:
For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:3-4
The plain fact is, the righteousness the Jews were striving for was not what God would call righteousness because it wasn’t the righteousness of God in Christ. “Grace” was not viewed within Second Temple Judaism in the Pauline sense:
To say that salvation in Judaism was by grace and imply that ‘works’ in the Lutheran sense were excluded is simply not true to Judaism. Nor should one expect that a Judaism that did not see humanity as fundamentally lost, nor requiring the death of God’s Son for its redemption, would construe the relation between divine grace and human works in the same way Paul did. – Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics, 443-444
Because of this misunderstanding of grace, the Judaism’s interpretation of “the works of the law” was indeed that religious works were required for salvation. Hence, the offense of the Cross.
Furthermore, there is a big difference between the idea of imputed righteousness (Reformers) and inclusive communal righteousness which is not imputed (New Perspective).
If we take a passage like Romans 9:30-32 perhaps we can see this illustrated better:
What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone. – Romans 9:30-32
Again, Dunn and Wright would say, “Yes, but the ‘works of the law’ are these external badges of status within the covenant, not religious works or works of merit.” If true, this would entail the verses underlined above would mean that because Israel’s faith was directed toward the emblems of the covenant and not the Lord [Christ] of the covenant, Israel had stumbled over the issue of Jesus and the salvation of the world. They did not realize that faith in the covenant and Messiah was not restricted to Israel. All nations now had access to the covenant people of God in Christ through the exercise of an ongoing faith in Him.
Faith, though, is not accounted as righteousness in a one-time legal sense because imputation is deemed absurd. Even N. T. Wright, for all his language about the propitiatory nature of Christ’s death, cannot accept the doctrine of imputation. As Waters writes,
Wright frequently avers that God at the cross ‘dealt once and for all with the sin of the world.’ A study of his comments on Christ’s death…in his recent commentary on Romans shows Wright’s consistent refusal to articulate Christ’s death in terms of an imputed righteousness…While Christ’s death may be said to be atoning, punitive, even propitiatory, Wright consistently refuses to detail the mechanism by which Christ’s death comes to be applied to the individual believer in time and history. – Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response, 141-142.
However, in Romans 4:4-5 grace is equated with faith in Jesus Christ and is opposed to works. This then means that the supposed ‘grace’ that, according to the New Perspective, the Jews were thinking of when they were speaking of their privileged position within the covenant (i.e. their boundary markers of Sabbath and circumcision and so on), is not the same grace that Paul is speaking about. The grace that he is referring to is something given to a person when they accept Jesus Christ as Savior! Because of this grace, the sinner passes from death to life. Something happens to them; they are taken out of Adam and they are put into Christ! Grace does this, not works. Read more »
The Claims of Truth
The Lord Jesus Christ not only brought with Him grace and truth (Jn. 1:14), but He was that Truth. His presence on our planet brought light to shine upon the darkness all around. Coming to Jesus is always a coming out of darkness into light. The light is His light just as the Truth is His Truth. By this I mean to say that there is no distinction between Him and what He brings. Since Jesus is the Truth just as much as He is the Word (Jn. 1:1-2) He must bring Truth.
It is not enough to say that He personifies truth. We must insist that truth cannot exist on its own independently of Jesus, His Father and the Spirit of Truth. Truth exists because God exists, If God did not exist truth would not exist, The idea of truth “out there”; – truth to be agreed with as an impersonal standard, is impossible. Although it is seen that way within non-biblical worldviews, truth does not and cannot be attained without contact with the personal God – who is Truth.
My earlier search for an anchor of truth to bind myself to would have been an unending desperate encountering of “truths” without a foundation. In the same way as I sensed that Savonarola and not Machiavelli; Watteau and not Fragonard; Mahler and not Wagner, had embraced some truths, so I also sensed that they found it because them embraced them. Without prolonging the aesthetic argument too much further, they included these truths in their work in the same way as one decides to include a stranger in a conversation. Truth doesn’t merely fly above us like a flag on a pole, it communicates to us.
This is why someone who claims to be a searcher for the truth cannot stand aloof from the claims of truth upon them. They will never alter truth but they must be willing to allow truth to do with them whatever it wants.
So in the world of the non-Christian “truth” is always something separate from life in the world. As such we can choose either to agree with it or disagree with it; to follow after it or to ignore it; to allow it to speak to us or to alter its message so that it speaks with our voice. There is no great advantage either way. Truth as an absolute is troublesome because absolutes cause friction and friction opposes peace. Therefore to choose truth in such an outlook is not always a “good” choice. Absolute truth is a convenience item, available to people whenever the circumstances require them to be definitive. Truth must undergo personal or societal evaluation, and once done it must be made to take itself less seriously. The claims of truth percolate down to opinion – just like everything else!
On the other hand there is biblical truth. There truth exists necessarily because the Triune God exists. We feel its grip upon our arms because we were made to do so originally and the imprint of the Maker is still upon us. Jesus told Pilate “every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn. 18:37). As the original Word Jesus built Truth into the fabric of the world He made (Jn. 1:2-3). As creatures ourselves, and image-bearers to boot, we ought to recognize that the claims of truth as proceeding from Him whose name is “Faithful and True” (Rev. 19:11).
A Brief Personal Testimony
Before I became a Christian at the age of 25 I had a yearning for truth. I tried to find it, of all places, at the local pub, ‘The Bull’. Not the deep truth of philosophers; just the everyday truth of belonging. Real Ale and parties and pub banter provided the backdrop for this belonging. The trouble is, it wasn’t very “real.” The conversation was aimless and repetitive: we knew it all and knew absolutely nothing.
When I reached twenty I discovered a book about Michelangelo among my mother’s books. The amazing brilliance of this artist: painter, sculptor, architect, poet, as well as his brooding persona, and his dedication to the ‘Christian’ humanist ideal, captivated me. I began to read about Art History, beginning with Vasari’s Lives and broadening out into all periods. I found the expressions of truth in Caravaggio’s mixing of serenity and menace, Brueghel’s depictions of death in the midst of pastoral beauty, the dignity of the mundane in de Hooch; Claude’s use of light, Constable’s clouds, Cezanne’s geometrical preoccupations. Men like these helped me to see that truth lay within the world around me. But for the most part, truth remained aloof.
The work of Vasari is punctuated by the presence of a man whose influence profoundly affected many of the artists Vasari wrote about. That man was a Domenican priest by the name of Girolamo Savonarola ( d.1498). Roman Catholic though he was, from the accounts of his life which I have read, it appears that Savonarola was a converted man. But putting that question aside, what impressed me about him was how his preaching in the great cathedral at Florence, brought about a real reformation in morals and a true fear of God in that Renaissance city.
Savonarola was not the only prominent man I read about. I also studied Machiavelli. The contrast between the motives of the two men; the one to make men see their answerability to God; the other to advise on the shenanigans of Cesare Borgia, started to make me see that truth was tied to motive. The martyr priest was more likely to point me to truth than the political philosopher. Notwithstanding, I did not “get religion” at that time, thinking it was a crutch and an escape. Instead I began to read authors I had run into in the history of art. I read Plato and Aristotle and Sophocles – the serious writers. After I’d had enough of them I indulged in the sarcasm of Aristophanes. From him I turned to Shakespeare, and then, for no real reason other than I liked the name, to Bertrand Russell. Again it became clear to me that even though the philosophers were brilliant and often witty, they seemed further from the truth than the poets and painters.
It was after plowing through most of Hans Kung’s Does God Exist? that I finally decided to read the Bible. My younger brother Craig had been reading the Bible for a while and now I felt I needed to do the same. I told myself that I could scarcely ignore such a book any more.
I am very glad that I hit upon reading the Gospels first. These four short “Lives” set before me the most compelling person I had ever encountered. Jesus spoke right into me. He did not “philosophize” about truth, he just spoke it; He confronted you with it! And the odd thing was, I recognized it when I read it.
I did not accept Jesus’ claims right away. There was a lot of clutter that needed to be riffled through. Besides, coming across John Drane’s doubt-filled book Jesus and the Four Gospels certainly didn’t help. But the Holy Spirit did not allow Drane’s concessions to historical criticism phase me. I was beginning to see that Truth was not a thing – a sort of home-plate to gain. Truth was not disconnected from the world; still less from people. Truth made claims upon me. Those claims I heard in Jesus’ voice and saw in His actions. Truth was personal. It was connected to Him who said “I am the truth!”
SERIES: Christ at the Center: The Fulcrum of Biblical Covenantalism –
Jesus and the Restitution of All Things: Part 6a
Jesus is supremely an eschatological Figure. By “eschatological” I have in mind a broad definition including God’s Plan in Christ, not just a message about End Times. Eschatology is bound to teleology and should therefore be studied progressively.
The resurrection, although it occurred in our space/time, does not “belong” in this history, but in our future history. It signals the future. The glorified body of the man Christ Jesus awaits the time when the Lord returns and brings to pass the “regeneration.” This regeneration will see the 12 Apostles seated on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. The need for judgment in the regenerated kingdom is seen in many OT places, like Isaiah 11 and Micah 4. The regeneration cannot be the New Heavens and Earth, because no judging is required in that perfect kingdom.
The Logic of Resurrection
The resurrection of Jesus Christ does not really belong in this age. In an important sense, it is an anachronism. When the atheist assures us that people do not rise from the dead we have to agree with him – at least in general. Of course, if they assert it like some scientific law we will beg to differ. Jesus is risen! But what a strange declaration. Amid the countless human beings who have come and gone upon the stage of history only One has had His physical Body resurrected. This singular event; which occurred very many years before we were born, is the anchor of our Christian hope. Without it, as Paul says it, “we are of all people the most pitiable.” Contrary to some points of view, the uniqueness of an event does not invalidate its credibility. In the strictest sense, every event, or, if that is too much to contemplate, very many events, are unique, just because they often include things which are not repeated in similar events. Just so, as there is only one Savior of the world, and all restoration hope is tied to Him, one would not expect another to be resurrected independently of his resurrection or, indeed, His timetable. The Christian Story is predicated upon such a simple logic.
But the resurrection does not merely fit nicely inside the Christian Story as a necessary article of faith; it actually fits within a necessary world and life view. I might say it is pivotal to any accurate world and life view. This is not at all to say that the resurrection is recognized for what it is in the world, any more than Christ Himself is accorded the recognition which is His due. It is just to say that the explanatory value of the Empty Tomb, at the level of the Big Questions of Life is immense.
This earth is cursed and will stay cursed. God’s curse on the material realm cannot be ameliorated. Notwithstanding, the resurrection of Christ does counter its affects. Resurrection is from death. It follows from this that the resurrection only makes sense in a cursed world. Its necessity and powerful counter-influence are only needed in this world. No resurrection is necessary in the New Creation. While it is true that the resurrected body must go into the New Creation, the New Heavens and Earth are maximally physical, as well as maximally spiritual. Thus, God doesn’t need a reason to create another pure physical realm to replace the present cursed one other than the fact that He has to do away with what He had cursed.
Could God make a new material realm by fiat and create glorified bodies for the saved souls of the saints in conjunction with that creative work without the requirement of resurrection? Conceivably yes, but then there could be no place for the resurrection. The logic of Resurrection requires a state of physical imperfection which is renovated or restored by dint of its connection to resurrection.
Some systems of eschatology treat this present material realm as a mere transportation system for the bodies of the elect. Or, more pointedly still, it is treated as a stage for the outplaying of history with no primary importance to God other than to deliver the elect into heaven. After that it is to be cast off and destroyed. Hence, in amillennialism particularly, wherein the planet serves in a reductionistic sense only as a mere carrier, the Christian worldview is impacted in the area of the purposes of this present earth.
A Glorious Anachronism
It could also be shown that any proper acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord and Christ brings with it a corresponding acceptance of and exalting in His bodily resurrection in heavenly glory. And it is just this fact which makes the resurrection a sort of anachronism.
Jesus is the only Savior of sinners because He Himself is without sin. Moreover, to no other man could Divine attributes be spoken about. It is these attributes of full deity which qualified Jesus to bring sinful mankind to God. But bringing mankind to God must include God’s original intention for man and woman. Nothing can be left out. Human beings were created to combine spiritual and physical qualities in a unique combination, and in so doing, to reflect the spiritual and material realms of creation within the image they had been given. But the material was cursed, and death has wrought its dismal effects upon our physical frames until they can be remade.
As I write this I look out at a great many various changing shades of green – in the leaves and the grass and the surrounding hills. But for all its splendor I look at bearers of the curse with which God struck the ground for Adam’s sake. Created from that earth, his body was doomed to fall back into it, until the time the material creation was ready to be restored. That event would itself be triggered by the physical glorification of the Church when the savior came for it near the end of this “present evil age.” But the transformation of believing humanity and the repristination of our environment does not have its source in a mere decision to act from the Throne of Glory. It finds its source in the historical fact of the empty tomb and the declaration “He is not here, but is risen!” And because He is risen we shall rise and this earth shall be pervaded with peace and its languishing beauty, so rarely glimpsed as its Creator wanted it to be experienced, shall come through under the hand of the King who reigns from Jerusalem. Read more »
Is Lack of Righteousness the Problem?
In the various presentations of the New Perspective on Paul or NPP, the centrality of the call upon sinners to repent and believe in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, and the promise of forgiveness and eternal life with God when they do is seriously compromised. Think about these words from the end of John 3:
“He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” – Jn. 3:36.
The solemnity of these words strikes everyone who reads them. The difference between everlasting life and abiding wrath is belief in the Son. What is it that must be believed? The answer to that question is the reason why John wrote his Gospel. After recounting the crucifixion and resurrection John focuses upon Thomas’s doubt and the Lord’s answer to that doubt. Jesus stresses belief in Him in that context. Then John adds his summary:
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. – Jn. 20:30
So what is the Gospel? Venema quotes N.T. Wright as saying,
“Let us be quite clear – the gospel is the announcement of Jesus’ Lordship which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham; now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. Justification is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family on this basis and no other.” – Cornelis Venema in By Faith Alone, edited by Gary LW Johnson & Guy P Waters, 43.
What Wright appears to be saying is that the Gospel which we must believe is that Jesus is Lord. There is no mention here of the cross and Christ becoming sin for us. There is nothing said about His death and resurrection for us. All that needs to be done, so it seems, is that people believe that Jesus is Lord and that includes them in the covenant family in Him. No word about our sin and God’s judgment! Venema introduces this quotation with the following words:
“If the gospel is not about how people get saved but the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, this is implications for our understanding of what Paul means by justification. This doctrine, though an essential, albeit subordinate theme in Paul’s preaching, does not address the issue of how guilty sinners can find favor with God. This would be to assume that Paul’s gospel focuses upon the salvation of the individual rather than [as the NPP would have it] upon the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the consequences of that Lordship for the realization of God’s covenant promises to Israel.”
The Gospel according to the NPP in Sum
This is the Gospel of the New Perspective:
As it was proclaimed to Israel by Jesus and by Paul and others, the Gospel was that Israel’s exile was over. Important to Wright is this view that ever since the Babylonian captivity Israel had been in exile. Even though they were in their own land, they were still in exile because they were under Roman rule, and so did not have self-sovereignty. The proclamation of the death and resurrection of Messiah, is for Wright the solution to Israel’s exile. They are to believe that Jesus is the Messiah; that Jesus is Lord. Having that badge of faith acts as the new and only badge of entrance into the covenant and is what justifies them.
Clearly there has been a radical shift of emphasis!
Clarity on Justification
Wright likes to say this idea of justification as a kind of ‘gas’ or a substance that can pass from one person [Jesus] onto another person [the sinner] is nonsense, unbiblical, and is, in fact, mythological. Before dismissing everything in that statement it should perhaps be admitted that this is the way certain schools of thought (and some in the Reformed churches come to mind), have sometimes construed justification. It is not uncommon in certain types of Reformed theology to be taught a view of justification as ‘transformative’ of the person who believes in Christ. In this teaching justification and sanctification merge or overlap. The classical view of the Reformers was that justification was just ‘forensic’ – a one-time legal decision made by God on behalf of the believing sinner. This approach does indeed view justification as an ongoing power: as a continual justifying faith to final perseverance. Read more »
The Affect on Exegesis
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” – Galatians 3:10
From what has been said already we may view the NPP as an attempt to adjust Christian understanding of the way First Century Jews saw themselves in relation, first to God and second to the Gentiles. To God they apparently did not think, like the Reformers believed they did, that they could earn merit with God. Instead it is claimed, they held that by grace they were in the grace covenant which assured national blessing to Israel. Hence, by observing the rites and solemnities of circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher practices, etc., they were showing fidelity to the covenant. Hence, when they read “works of the law” as in Gal. 3:10 above, the Jews understood it to mean these exclusivistic observances.
But that is not all. The New Perspective also urges us to reinterpret the Apostle Paul’s mindset in these same terms. Once we do that, we are told, we will see that Paul was not speaking about works of merit at all in Romans and Galatians. Rather, he was speaking about these badges of exclusivity.
You see, the real problem Paul was writing about was that the Jews would not allow that through Christ’s work on the Cross the Gentiles too were invited to become covenant people along with Israel. Just as the Jews believed they were partakers of God’s covenant grace, so also they must accept that Gentiles likewise would be included with them if they believed the good news that God had opened the covenant up to them as equal sharers of covenant grace with Israel, but without the need for Israel’s badges – which, remember, as markers of exclusivity, would be rendered unnecessary and redundant.
Let us take another look at Galatians 3:10a with these things in mind:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.
Reformation interpreters and their followers would read the verse like this: – For as many as are of the works of the law [that is Jews and those who follow their lead, who are seeking their justification in works of merit, trying to establish their righteousness by obeying the law] are under the curse. [The curse that comes because the law can do nothing but condemn us, and therefore put us under a curse.]
The standard NPP interpretation would be: – For as many as are of the works of the law [now seen as those Israelites who are looking to their external ‘badges’ or emblems, trying to find their justification in them] they are under the curse. [Because of failure to see that justification through covenant membership is extended to non-Jews]. “They” here is Israel generally. This is a national curse which has come upon them. (This also explains why NPP advocates tend to use strong replacement language).
The Nationalistic Problem
So NPP advocates believe the problem is not with individuals, but with the nation of Israel, which believes itself to be safe in the covenant because of these grace emblems that they’ve been given by God and which set them off from the Gentiles. In actual fact, we’re told, those very things, Paul would say to the Jews, “do not justify you if you exclude Israel.”!
Conversely this means that justification would not be interpreted as individual justification because that’s not what is needed. Rather, “justification” is that Israel embraces Messiah, understands that Messiah has come, and that the true ‘badge’ of the covenant is faith and not these external markers. As Westerholm represents the NPP writers as teaching:
“Justification meant for Paul what it meant for other Jews; the decisive vindication of God’s people when God as a court of law pronounced in their favor. Righteous or justified here designates those in whose favor the Divine Judge has pronounced. But for Paul, the people of God destined for justification were not those demarcated by the works of Torah. Justification, a divine verdict at the end of history, known in anticipation by God’s people in the present, is for those who have faith in the gospel. What Paul was at pains to demolish was the national righteousness pursued by those who imagined that their place in the covenant people of God was secured by their loyalty to the signs of Jewish ethnic identity.” – Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 182-183
What of Faith?
Does this focus on the corporate nature of salvation alter the doctrine of justification by grace through faith? We must answer this question with a resounding “Yes”, although it is important not to overstate the case. Someone such as N. T. Wright will not discount individual salvation, but he would still say that the main issue in Paul’s Gospel is the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant community. Read more »
I include this piece because the influence of this movement is increasing within Evangelicalism, and I believe many people are in the dark about it. The subject is important also because we tend to view Scripture through the lens of the Reformation instead of the other way round. Although the Reformers got the Gospel right, their successors have sometimes appealed to them and not the Bible. At least the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), whatever its merits or demerits, has directed us back to the Bible again.
The so-called “New Perspective on Paul” would be better called ‘New Perspectives on Paul.’ But in whatever variation, and whatever its problems, the New Perspective offers an important and robust challenge to traditional Reformation views of justification and Pauline theology. I should say that I do not dismiss everything the New Perspective has to say. While I am completely in agreement with the Reformers on justification by grace through faith, I am not ready to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The main protagonists of the so-called New Perspective on Paul begin with E.P. Sanders and his book Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977. This was the one that really drove the wedge between the modern understanding of Second Temple Judaism and the Judaism exemplified by Luther and the Reformation. According to the New Perspective scholars, Luther and Calvin and others got Second Temple Judaism wrong. They thought the Jews of Jesus’ and Paul’s era believed in a ‘works’ righteousness and therefore in justification by works. Whereas, going back to the sources, Sanders brought forward evidence to show that such was not in fact the belief held by scribes and Pharisees of the first part of the First Century A.D.
It is important that we understand that over the last 40-50 years, in fact the last 10-20 years, there has been a tremendous increase in our knowledge of the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day, and so there is a great deal more information to sift through arising a great deal earlier than the information people like Edersheim and Rosenmuller used when they were teaching about Judaism. (Of course, this has implications also for Messianic Judaism, which very often does not take this new information into account when it seeks an inside track into understanding Jesus and the apostles).
As far as this issue of justification is at stake, what E.P. Sanders taught was that Second Temple Jews believed, not in a ‘works-based’ salvation but in a ‘grace-based’ salvation. Now certainly this ‘grace-based’ salvation was not the same as the ‘salvation by grace through faith’ which the Reformation teachers spoke of. It was “grace-based” in that they understood that collective Israel was chosen, or elected, purely on the basis of God’s grace and not on the basis of the people within Israel being special. Being part of the community of Israel; having the Scriptures and having the covenants (particularly the Mosaic Law), and having the “badges” of that covenant (like circumcision), led to the idea of identifying Jewish righteousness with these outward things. The Jews were seeing themselves as people of the covenant just because they had these tokens from God. We can see some of this indeed in Romans 2:17-3:8.
What was happening here is that the Jews were looking at their Jewishness and saying, “Well, because I’m a Jew, because I’m in the covenant, and because I have circumcision, and because I have these things by grace from God… that justifies me!” That is certainly part of what Paul is addressing in the passage.
The Problem Defined
The problem comes into focus when people like Sanders, and those who, to differing degrees follow him – James DG Dunn, NT Wright, and Scott McKnight – allege that these ‘badges’, the exclusive claims which they say are the root of the problem Paul is dealing with in Romans and Galatians, are equated with the phrase “the works of the law.” For example, in the following verses:
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law [e.g. circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath observance, etc.] but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. – Galatians 2:16
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” – Galatians 3:10
So then, these badges: circumcision, having the law of the covenant, and so on, become ‘ethnic’ or ‘nationalistic’ barriers which symbolize “inclusion in a grace covenant” and keep out the Gentiles.
Basically what was happening, according to writers of the New Perspective, is that the Jews were saying, “We have these covenant tokens; they are given to us by grace. We haven’t done anything to deserve them, but we have them and they are ours! They are not the property of the Gentiles! So you have to be in this covenant community in Israel in order to be saved; you have to have these badges.”
In the words of one critic of the New Perspective:
“In addition to his agreement with Sanders general description of Judaism as a non-legalistic religion, Wright also makes sympathetic use of Dunn’s interpretation of Paul’s dispute with the Judaizers and their understanding of the works of the law. The problem with the Judaizers appeal to the works of the law was not its legalism, Wright insists, but it’s perverted nationalism; the Pauline expression ‘the works of the law’ does not refer to a legalistic claim regarding how sinners can find favor with God by obeying the law but to the nationalistic Jewish claim that God’s covenant promise extends only to the Jews. The ‘works of the law’ are what Dunn calls ‘boundary markers’; those acts of conformity to the law that serve to distinguish the Jewish community from the Gentiles.” Cornelis Venema – By Faith Alone: edited by Gary LW Johnson and Guy P Waters, page 41