Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why Listen to What the New Perspective Has to Say?

One of the topics I most frequently write about on this blog concern N.T. Wright and the new perspective on Paul. The issue seems to be getting more and more attention in evangelical circles and this post is an attempt to introduce my readers to why I find the new perspective on Paul helpful.

I am still sorting through the new perspective and am not an authority on it by any means. I have been studying it for a only couple years now. I have read two books by Tom Wright ( Paul in Fresh Perspective and Simply Christian) though I have read many essays by him and listened to numerous lectures that he's given.

I have never really found the more "traditional" reading of Galatians and Romans fully persuasive. The presupposition that Paul is writing primarily and explicitly against merit legalism strikes me as doubtful. To me the two books seem primarily interested in what it means that Christ died for Jew and Gentile alike--that the unity and truth of the gospel as the testimony of God's faithfulness to his promise to Abraham is at stake. These two books seem ultimately concerned that both Jews and Gentiles fellowship together by properly understanding the purpose of the old covenant and the freedom and unity to be found in the new.

The so-called new perspective is broad, and my interaction with it is limited to primarily Wright, and a couple influential articles by Tim Gallant and Derrick Olliff. I have read and listened to a great deal of criticism of Wright and the new perspective on Paul (NPP) trying to understand the reservations of those whose opinions I respect in other matters--including John Piper, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, Sinclair Ferguson, and so on. While I respect the opinions these men have on most matters I am typically left disappointed by the manner in which they dismiss and criticize the NPP. They don't seem adequately interested in dealing with the substance and are too quick to object to it.

I have struggled in the way I respond to the NPP and its critics because much of the NPP doesn't seem to be that great of a departure from what we learn from the traditional view. That is why I am so perplexed by critics of the NPP. There is so much common ground--at least with the NPP proponents that I've spent time studying that I really don't understand what everyone gets so upset about, if one reads the literature with care and without imputing other ideas and beliefs to it that the writers don't likely hold to.

One of the most helpful things I have learned through studying the NPP is that in the traditional view on Paul there is a danger that "faith" can be turned into a sort of meritorious work. It seems to me that in preaching so strongly against works righteousness and stressing the importance of faith, faith itself it becomes a sort of work. In stressing the importance of faith many are led to elevate faith in a way outside and above its proper biblical function. This may seem bizarre, but I do not believe that I am the only one to struggle with this. I have seen people who are always anxious that they do not have enough faith--and I don't mean in a simple, humble way--but in a neurotic, self-loathing kind of way that is unhealthy for the Christian.

I doubt I explained that adequately, but when I realized this, I felt as though I'd been freed from a sort of bondage--a bondage to the exaltation of "faith." What I find in the way Wright and others read Romans and Galatians is the stress upon grace. God's grace is liberating because it frees me from anxiety that I might fall out of God's favor. Grace leads to trust and to deeper faith. Through a greater understanding of God's grace, I have found greater contentment and joy in Christ.

The way I see it, faith is not new to the New Testament--something that one might infer from most commentaries on Romans or Galatians. The covenant given in the OT is one of God's unmerited grace. The ten commandments begin with the words, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." God called a people to himself out of slavery and bondage by his grace--not because of who they were, but because of who God would make them to be. In his goodness he demanded that his people Israel follow the law he would give to them. Yet Psalm 119 and many others are full of language like "I will delight in your [God's] statutes."

So just as the Jews were given a covenant of grace and were called to good works, so to are we as Christians given a (new) covenant of grace and are called to good works (Matthew 5:16, Ephesians 2:10, Titus 2, etc.). Yet as Paul makes clear in Galatians, we know that it has always been that, "it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham," and again in Romans 4, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." The way in which people get into covenant with God has not changed--it has always been by faith. But before Christ that meant that Israel, the covenant people of God were identified by belonging to Torah--not as a means for salvation, but as the covenant that defined them as God's people. "Now," as Paul writes, "that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith." We "all"--meaning Jew and Gentile, are sons of God, not through flesh/works of the law (circumcision, dietary laws, etc.) but through faith--Christ's faithful fulfillment of the old covenant. The old covenant has served its purpose. It is obsolete and no longer in force. To require Gentile believers to follow Jewish law is to spurn Christ and declare his once for all sacrifice is insufficient, and that salvation is to be found through the old covenant, not the new.

I don't know how accurately the above statement would reflect N.T. Wright, or any of those aided by the NPP, but I think it is a good summary statement of what I have come to learn through studying Wright and others.

Helpful Resources Online:
The N.T. Wright Page
The Paul Page
N.T. Wright - The Shape of Justification
Tim Gallant on Galatians
Derrick Olliff on Galatians
Derrick Olliff - Looking For Legalism

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