Yesterday’s post provided an introduction to the New Perspectives on Paul (NPP), a revisiting of his epistles which started in the 1960s which is championed by a handful of Anglican theologians, principally N T ‘Tom’ Wright.

Robin Brace, a British evangelical specialising in discernment ministry, noted that NPP has a number of unusual and unbiblical elements to it, namely a rejection of the scriptural view of justification. Coupled onto this are the necessity of manmade works as well as an ecumenistic attempt to bridge the gap between Protestantism and Judaism and Roman Catholicism.

Today’s post considers three quotes from N T Wright on NPP and a critique from the prominent Reformed theologian Cornelius Venema. Emphases mine below.

First, the three quotes from N T Wright:

Like many New Testament scholars, I am largely ignorant of the Pauline exegesis of all but a few of the fathers and reformersThe Middle Ages, and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had plenty to say about Paul, but I have not read it.  – Paul in Fresh Perspective (Fortress, 2006), 13

There has been a whole new movement in the last ten or fifteen years in Pauline studies examining the political meaning of Paul. I have taken part in this. The moving spirit really behind much of it has been Richard Horsley of the University of Massachusetts. He has argued very strongly – and pulled together teams of scholars from classics and elsewhere in various symposia that he’s edited … we can no longer ignore the fact that when we read Paul saying “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is kyrios, Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11, NRSV), we ought to see that there and perhaps in dozens of other passages as well, there is an implicit and sometimes an explicit subversion of Caesar’s world. – Conversation with James D G Dunn [ex-Reformed, now Methodist], 2004

The whole point about ‘justification by faith’ is that it is something which happens in the present time (Romans 3.26) as a proper anticipation of the eventual judgment which will be announced, on the basis of the whole life led, in the future (Romans 2.1–16).
N.T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, p. 57

These are certainly evoking memories of my Roman Catholic days and the utter confusion and uncertainty which accompanied them. Works for the sake of works, not the grace-given works which are spontaneous fruits of faith. As far as politicisation is concerned, whatever happened to Jesus’s words ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36)?

Dr Cornelis P Venema presented a concise Reformed perspective refuting NPP in 2010. Venema is president and professor of doctrinal studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and associate pastor of Redeemer United Reformed Church in Dyer, Indiana.

What follows are excerpts from ‘A Future Justification Based on Works?’ which he wrote for R C Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk:

One of the remarkable features of N.T. Wright’s reformulation of the Protestant doctrine of justification is his emphasis upon a “future justification” on the basis of works. According to Wright, the apostle Paul clearly teaches that believers will be subject to a final judgment “according to works” (Rom. 14:10–12; 2 Cor. 5:10). This future judgment according to works constitutes, in Wright’s opinion, the eschatological completion of the believer’s justification. Wright defines justification as an act of God’s covenant faithfulness that involves an eschatological vindication of those who belong to His covenant family. When God justifies those who are members of His covenant community, He does so in anticipation of their “final justification” at the last judgment. Accordingly, we must recognize that justification occurs in three tenses or stages — past, present, and future … Since Wright identifies the final judgment with the final chapter of the justification of believers, he radically compromises the scriptural teaching that justification is not based upon works or human performance (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 3:10–14). From an historical perspective, Wright’s position is not unlike that of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which also claimed that the Reformation’s view of justification by faith alone failed to do justice to the biblical theme of a final acquittal before God based upon works. If, as Wright insists, the justification of believers requires a final phase or “completion,” which will be determined by the works of the justified, then it seems evident that he teaches a doctrine of justification by grace through faith plus works. The apostle Paul’s teaching that works are wholly excluded as a basis for the justification of believers is incompatible with the idea that (final) justification will ultimately be based upon works. Paul regards justification as a thoroughly eschatological blessing, which anticipates definitively and irrevocably the final verdict that God declares regarding believers. The notion of a final justification on the basis of works inevitably weakens the assertion that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). A final justification on the basis of works also undermines Paul’s bold declaration that no charge can be brought, now or in the future, against those who are Christ’s (Rom. 8:33–34). Rather than treating the final judgment as another chapter in the justification of believers, we should view Paul’s emphasis upon the role of works in this judgment in terms of his understanding of all that salvation through union with Christ entails. Because believers are being renewed by Christ’s Spirit, their acquittal in the final judgment will be a public confirmation of the genuineness of their faith and not a justifying verdict on the basis of works

NPP counters what St Paul says. It counters the Doctrine of Grace. It diminishes Spirit-inspired works, which are the fruits of faith, at the expense of unbiblical manmade deeds of ‘merit’. It can be easily misinterpreted: ‘You’re not doing enough’. As Dr Venema said, NPP leads to the same unbiblical ambiguities that the Roman Catholic Church espouses. It also encourages ‘ethical’ and political activism instead of the evangelism which Christ asked of us in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).

I mention NPP only because N T Wright might well be a candidate to succeed Dr Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury. I could be wrong, but I have the impression that his books on the subject might be influencing Anglican clergy; there is a great push in our parishes for ‘getting involved’. Also observe the clergy of St Paul’s who seem to be more interested in political activism than in making disciples of all men.

Tomorrow: Michael Horton on NPP