By Faith Alone, part 3

This part of the review looks at Cornelis Venema’s article entitled “What Did Saint Paul Really Say?” The subtitle is “N.T. Wright and the New Perspective(s) on Paul. He notes that this article appeared (minus revision and abridgment) as part of a series in The Outlook (Sept. 2002-Oct. 2004). The scope of this article is the theology of N.T. Wright as compared to the theology of Paul, especially as regards justification.

He starts by noting the seriousness of the attack on Reformed theology: “evangelical and Reformed Christians can ill afford to be ignorant of its emphases or influence” (pg. 34). His thesis is explicitly stated (I love it when authors do this, especially in articles) on page 35: “My thesis will be that the older perspective on Paul’s doctrine of justification ultimately provides a more satisfying and comprehensive interpretation of the gospel than the new perspective of writers like Wright.”

Venema then goes on to examine some of the key authors who have influenced Wright. His overall thesis with regard to this point is that “(Wright) proceeds from the assumption that the writings of Sanders, Dunn, and other advocates of a new approach require a fresh reading of Paul” (pg. 36). What follows is an examination of Sanders’s view of Second Temple Judaism (abbreviated 2TJ). Sanders’s own summary of covenantal nomism (his view of how 2TJ operates as a religion) is summarized on pg. 37. This view of 2TJ then forces Sanders to re-evaluate Paul’s critique of 2TJ. His conclusion is that what is wrong about Judaism is that it is not Christianity (pg. 38, quoting Paul and Palestinian Judaism, pg. 552).

Venema’s look at Dunn focuses on Dunn’s interpretation of the phrase “works of the law.” According to Venema (and he is right), Dunn defines the Judaizers’ problems as involving a use of the works of the law to exclude Gentiles from membership in the covenant community (pg. 39). This means that the “works of the law” refers to boundary markers, things that mark Jews as Jews. This would be things like circumcision and dietary laws. I would note here that these form part or all of what the Reformers called the ceremonial aspects of the law. As such, the arguments of the Reformers against the Roman Catholic position (which was that only the ceremonial aspects of the law are excluded from justification) can also be used against the NPP.

He then goes on to describe Wright’s definition of the Gospel. He starts here by describing Wright’s view of 2TJ, which is heavily indebted to Sanders. 2TJ is not a religion of works, but a religion of grace. Thus Paul was not opposing legalism, but exclusivism. Paul attacks a perverted nationalism (pg. 41), according to Wright. Venema notes that “he (Wright) regards the doctrine of justification to be a subordinate theme in Paul’s proclamation of the gospel” (41). I might qualify this slightly by asserting that, although Wright does do this, he also says that justification is still central to the Gospel. Venema asserts that Wright claims that the gospel is not a system of how people get saved (quoting the words of Wright). Rather, the gospel focuses on the Lordship of Christ (pg. 42). Venema correctly notes that “If the gospel is not about how people get saved, but the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, this has implications for our understanding of what Paul means by justification” (43). These implications follow from Wright’s construal of various phrases and aspects in Paul, including “the righteousness of God,” “to justify,” the role of faith, the tenses of justification, and the relationship of Christ’s cross and resurrection and the church’s justification (43). These categories consitute the bulk of the remainder of his article. 

Venema challenges Wright on the definition of “righteousness of God” in Paul. Wright’s definition, as is well-known, is that “God’s righteousness” refers to the covenantal faithfulness of God. As such, it is not transferrable to people. Hence, as Venema would argue, Wright denies imputation in justification. He quotes the often-quoted part of WSPRS about righteousness not being a gas that can be passed across the courtroom. I agree with Venema here. However, I think his case could have been strengthened even more had he acknowledged and dealt with Wright’s claim that the glories of the Reformation doctrine of justification are not lost in his theology (see pg. 113 of WSPRS, for instance). It is the claim of many Wright supporters that Wright does not deny the substance of what imputation is meant to affirm. Rather, (they claim) Wright plays a sort of “musical theological chairs,” and rearranges imputation to be put under union with Christ. I would argue that the papists argue for union with Christ in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but that it doesn’t follow that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us simply because of union with Christ. Wright denies imputation in every single passage where the Reformers have exegeted it to be there. Wright does say that what’s true of Christ is true of us. But he does not ever spell out how this happens, and what exactly it is that true of both Christ and us. I have a hunch that, if pushed into a corner, Wright would deny that “what’s true of Christ is true of us” means that we are given Christ’s righteousness by imputation. In which case, he does not teach what the Reformation says Paul taught.

Venema has an excellent discussion of the soteriological/ecclesiological debate in WSPRS. Read it for yourself.

One point that is not strong in the article, in my opinion, is Venema’s dealing with Christ’s work (pp. 49ff) in the work of Wright. The difficulty here is that Wright strongly believes that Christ takes on our sin to Himself. See, for instance, Jesus and the Victory of God, which has a rather extended discussion of Jesus being the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, and taking upon Himself the sins of His people. In my own mind, it is here, if anywhere, that Wright could be said to be a Christian, if he is one. I don’t think that Venema’s quotation of Wright’s Climax of the Covenant, pg. 138 (quoted on page 49), is really to the point. Wright denies that that particular passage speaks of atonement theology, and he does distort the relationship of biblical theology and systematic theology. However, that does not equate to a denial of the Atonement. What might be true, however, in Venema’s critique, is the idea that Wright could possibly deny that Christ’s suffering was specifically taking upon Himself the curse of the law for our disobedience. However, that would need to be proven a bit more strongly, imo. Venema may also be right in his conclusion, “However, since Wright insists that the problem to which justification provides an answer is the identification of those who belong to the covenant, he does not articulate the doctrine of the atonement along the lines of classic Protestant theology” (pg. 50). I’m not sure that he has proved the point. I would agree that if one’s theology of justification is off, the atonement theology will also be off in that it will be one-sided. One will only have one-half of justification, and that this will distort our view of eternal life, and how we acquire possession of it. To this extent, I agree with Venema’s conclusion.

That being said (and I would love it if Dr. Venema would interact with my critique on this point: I am quite willing to be persuaded that I am wrong), Venema has an excellent critique of Sanders following on page 51. Covenantal nomism is semi-Pelagian, as Venema points out, since we do not stay in by our works, but by God’s grace. The works that we accomplish have to do with the degree of reward in eternity, not with whether staying in is dependent on what we do. This reminds me that the WS define sanctification as an act of God’s grace. This is in no way to deny that saving faith will necessarily result in good works. Of course it does. But what do those works do? They do not accomplish our staying in the covenant. Duguid proves this decisively in his excellent article in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. Venema pointedly and decisively destroys Wright’s arguments in this summary: “The obvious weakness of Wright’s insistence that this (the “moral bootstraps” rhetoric of Wright) requires a new view of Paul’s teaching on justification is that he (and other New Perspective writers) does not seriously consider whether covenantal nomism could accomodate a form of religious teaching that regards acceptance with God to be based upon grace plus good works” (pg. 52). He further concludes that “The parallel, therefore, that the Reformers drew between the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Judaizing heresy opposed by the apostle Paul was that they both wanted to make human works subsequent to the initiative of God’s grace a partial basis for justification in the present and the future” (pg. 52). I might add the NPP to Roman Catholicism and Judaism in this respect.

I am not going to describe in detail the remainder of the article, which simultaneously exposits Reformed theology and destroys NPP readings of Paul. Read it in detail. I hope I have whetted your appetite for reading this article, which is excellent, despite my relatively small criticism.