Letter From Richard Phillips

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wsw201

Puritan Board Senior
This is a great letter from Richard Phillips on NPP and the Westminster Standards from the PCA Faithonline ezine:

The debate over the so-called New Perspective on Paul has been heating up for several years, and already it is being characterized by an inability for the two sides to effectively communicate. Writing as a pastor who has serious and sincere concerns about what I have been reading, both in internet debates and in books, I have honest questions for which I would like to receive straight answers. The purpose of this brief article is to ask the questions that are most important to me, and I believe many others, with the hope that those who support the New Perspective will be generous enough simply to answer them.



First, let me offer two observations I have made regarding the tenor of this debate. First, those who support the New Perspective seem to resent attempts to clarify their position by means of the summary statements their own proponents have written. N.T. Wright, for instance, has helpfully provided a summary of his views regarding justification in his book What Saint Paul Really Said, along with the article The Shape of Justification. In my experience, we who question the statements found in those summaries are consistently told we are misrepresenting the body of N.T. Wright´s work. Let me simply observe that when one presents his own summary of his views, it is only fair to expect people to take them as accurately representing those views.



The second observation I have made time and again is that this particular debate becomes very heated very quickly, replete with challenges to the motives of those asking the questions. But surely it is the duty of teaching elders in a confessional denomination to make inquiries about statements that seem to contradict the faith entrusted to our safekeeping. People like me may be wrong, but we are not necessarily wrong, nor mean-spirited, because we respond with concerns to a purported new perspective that sounds to us like a new doctrines.



With those observations in mind, I would like to honestly ask just the biggest questions that are on my mind, and which I believe represent the concerns of many who are troubled by the New Perspective on Paul. I do so having read a fair amount of the literature on this matter, though not all of it. My specific concerns are in reaction to statements in the summaries provided by N.T. Wright and those who support his views.



My first question deals with the doctrine of justification. In his summary chapter on justification in What St. Paul Really Said, Wright says:



Justification"¦ is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community"¦ "˜Justification´ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God"¦ It was not so much about "˜getting in,´ or indeed about "˜staying in,´ as about "˜how you could tell who was in.´ In standard Christian theological language, it wasn´t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church (p. 119, author´s italics).



I want to be honest. It troubles me extremely that a minister who subscribes to the Westminster Confession could support such language. This is Wright´s own summary of his views "“ not mine, but his. (This, Mr. Woolsey, is why we continue to make this allegation against Wright. Despite caveats he makes elsewhere, when he offers his own summary of his view he states it in these terms.)



Our Shorter Catechism teaches that "œJustification is an act of God´s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight" (Q. 33). This says that justification is about being accepted by God. It says nothing about God acting to declare that we are already part of his covenant community. (These may be related matters, but they are not the same thing.) It is about "œgetting in," and not about "œhow you could tell who was in." It is about salvation, not ecclesiology, at least in terms of how the Larger Catechism sees it: In justification, God "œpardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight" (Q. 70). It is God´s view of the person "“ soteriology "“ and not the church´s view of the person "“ ecclesiology. Therefore, it seems to me that what Wright teaches is not a new perspective on justification but a new definition of justification.



So here is my first honest question to those who support what Wright says: How can you hold to the teaching of our Confession "“ which says that justification is how God accepts us "“ and also agree with the statement that this is not what justification is about? I will agree that perhaps Wright is right, although I do not believe he is. What I cannot agree to is that both Wright and the Westminster Standards are right. I do not mean this as a personal attack. It is just an honest question that desires a straight answer.



Furthermore, I read in Wright´s article, The Shape of Justification, that our justification is patterned after Christ´s justification. Jesus obeyed God fully. He is declared righteous. I share in his righteousness as I am joined to him through faith. While making much of me dying with Christ, little mention is made of Christ having died for me¸ that is, on my behalf. At best, Wright makes allusions to the role of Christ´s death in our justification, enough so that I do not want to accuse him of denying that we are justified because of the cross. But the emphasis Wright places on his death is his obedience to God in it, not the blood-shedding of the Lamb of God to propitiate God´s wrath and expiate my sins. According to WCF XI.3, the main significance of Christ´s death is that he "œdid fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father´s justice in their behalf."



I am gratified to read that Wright sees us justified by Christ´s full obedience. But the manner in which this comes to me seems to be a point of some divergence. Whereas Adam and Eve were clothed with the external righteous of an innocent sacrifice, I seem to gain my righteousness by participating in the righteousness of Jesus. The emphasis on his death is made to be his obedience to God in it "“ an obedience in which I participate by faith "“ rather than atonement he made for me. Here, then, is my second question: Does this not represent a reformulation of justification, one that involves a participative righteousness rather than an imputed one, rather than merely a new perspective on it?



My third big question about the New Perspective and N.T. Wright has to do with the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture. Even as I write these words, I know that many readers are imagining that I am about to reject all scholarship. Already their pens are prepared to write, "œWe believe that God has fresh light to break forth from the Scriptures." And yet, questions regarding methodology are always essential. Those who argue that the New Perspective is just that "“ a new and fresh perspective on an old, beloved theme "“ will say that this perspective is gained by, as Daniel Kirk puts it in his defense, "œstanding on the ground of first century Judaism." So how do I get to this hallowed ground? Is it by reading the Scriptures? No, it is through the scholarly-critical methods taught us by N.T. Wright.



According to Wright, we should not split rigorous history from rigorous theology. By his own admission, he wants us to read the New Testament documents in light of critical historical investigation. "œWe choose to take seriously the apparently foolish road of historical investigation," he boasts (Jesus and the Victory of God, 9). By this, he means scholarly investigation of non-biblical materials. Whereas the Reformers cried, "œTo the sources!" meaning especially the original autographs of Scripture, the New Perspective says, "œChristianity appeals to history; to history it must go" (ibid, 11). The argument is, as I read it, that we do not know how to read the New Testament documents until we first get into the first century world by critical historical investigation. "œYour problem," they tell us, "œis that you lack the objectivity and the context to hear what the Bible is really saying." They, however, through their critical scholarship, have the objectivity we lack.



Here, then, is the third question that I ask as honestly as I can: Does this not deny that the Bible effectively reveals what God wants us to know about life and salvation? If we can´t understand the Bible apart from scholarly historical inquiry, then isn´t the critical scholarship what really controls the message? Isn´t this the very claim once made by source criticism, and then by form criticism? Doesn´t this depict the Bible as "œjust another human document," thus must be interpreted by the priestly specialists, rather than the living and active Word of God by which God effectively communicates his message even today? Does this not openly deny WCF I:7, which says that "œthose things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them?"



It seems to me that the New Perspective uses non-biblical documents to counter and correct the Bible´s teaching. We are told repeatedly, for instance, that the Jews did not believe they were justified by their moral and spiritual attainments. This is just Luther reading his own experience back into the Bible. We are informed of this from historical investigation of extra-biblical documents. And yet, Luke records our Lord Jesus plainly teaching the very thing Luther affirms and the New Perspective denies. Luke 18:9 says that Jesus taught the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector against "œsome who trusted in themselves that they were righteous." The Pharisee boasts about the very things the New Perspective tells us he would not have boasted in: he is not an extortionist, he is not unjust, he is not an adulterer; he fasts, he super-tithes. This goes far beyond covenantal markers like circumcision; it is about moral and spiritual attainments as the ground for acceptance with God.



Even in the 21st century we can understand the meaning of this. Jesus says that it was the sinful tax collector who was justified, while the Pharisee was not justified. (Note that when Jesus says the Pharisee is not justified, he is not talking about how the church should view him "“ ecclesiology "“ but about how God views him "“ soteriology.) And why was the sinful tax collector justified? Jesus says it was because he humbled himself, and in the parable he explains what he means by this: the tax collector confessed his sin and called in faith for an atoning sacrifice. "œGod, be mercy-seated to me, a sinner!" Here, Jesus propounds the very view that Luther rested on for justification, just as I did.



You can show me all the extra-biblical documents you want that deny the first century perspective of Jesus Christ, recorded through his faithful witness, Luke. But I will take my stand on the Word of God alone, trusting that God is able to accurately communicate his message to me through it and is faithful to do so.



From that old perspective, I honestly ask, how can these contrary teachings be only a fresh perspective? For the reasons stated above, I honestly have concluded that the New Perspective redefines the doctrine of justification and denies the Westminster doctrine of Scripture. These have been honest questions, and I would like those who disagree with me to give me straight answers to them. But if I am not wrong, I ask one final question: how can anyone purport to uphold the Westminster Standards while also teaching the so-called New Perspective on Paul?

[Edited on 8/10/2005 by wsw201]
 

Poimen

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
:up:

While we are on the subject, let us consider what another scholar (Alan Segal - liberal Jew) has to say on Paul and the Jews of his day:

1) In reference to Romans 3:21-31: "œAlthough Paul says that the law should not be overthrown, he also says that faith rather than law manifests the righteousness of God"¦. When he was a Pharisee, Paul would have been incapable of saying that faith rather than law manifests the righteousness of God in any meaningful way. No other Jews in the first century distinguish faith and law in the way Paul does. For a Jew, faith fundamentally precedes anything as well, but there is no need to distinguish between it and law." (page 128)

2) In reference to Romans 10:5-8 "œPaul has again set up a contradiction that would not have occurred to a believing Jew, for whom both passages would have applied to Torah as revealed on Mount Sinai." (page 278)

3) In reference to Galatians 3:6-14: "œHe shows that Deut. 27:26 conflicts with Hab. 2:4: "˜He who through faith is righteous shall live.´ There would be no contradiction between the two statements for a Pharisee; both faith and commandments are integral and noncontradictory parts of the love, obedience to, and worship of God." (page 120)

[Edited on 8-10-2005 by poimen]
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
For the record, I have never held to Wright's views on justification. My below statements must be read in that context. I just thought he was awesome on Jesus and the resurrection. Anyway, it was a good letter and raised relevant issues. Here goes:

My third big question about the New Perspective and N.T. Wright has to do with the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture. Even as I write these words, I know that many readers are imagining that I am about to reject all scholarship. Already their pens are prepared to write, "œWe believe that God has fresh light to break forth from the Scriptures." And yet, questions regarding methodology are always essential. Those who argue that the New Perspective is just that "“ a new and fresh perspective on an old, beloved theme "“ will say that this perspective is gained by, as Daniel Kirk puts it in his defense, "œstanding on the ground of first century Judaism." So how do I get to this hallowed ground? Is it by reading the Scriptures? No, it is through the scholarly-critical methods taught us by N.T. Wright.



According to Wright, we should not split rigorous history from rigorous theology. By his own admission, he wants us to read the New Testament documents in light of critical historical investigation. "œWe choose to take seriously the apparently foolish road of historical investigation," he boasts (Jesus and the Victory of God, 9). By this, he means scholarly investigation of non-biblical materials. Whereas the Reformers cried, "œTo the sources!" meaning especially the original autographs of Scripture, the New Perspective says, "œChristianity appeals to history; to history it must go" (ibid, 11). The argument is, as I read it, that we do not know how to read the New Testament documents until we first get into the first century world by critical historical investigation. "œYour problem," they tell us, "œis that you lack the objectivity and the context to hear what the Bible is really saying." They, however, through their critical scholarship, have the objectivity we lack.

I think Wright's first problem in methodology is that he isn't Van Tillian. I remember reading his critical realism and thinking, "Its good that he is critical, but he isn't critical enough. He isn't critical of his own presuppositions." His critical realism is good in that it butchers liberal scholarship's a prioris, but he stops short of giving the hammer-blow.

And of course, this raises the question: To what extent archaeology? I admit myself, I know little of archaeology and would rather dig into the text than into the sand.

Historical sources: I agree with the letter writer's critique--according to NP(s)P's standards history becomes the guiding principle of interpretation, rather than a transcendental norm in scripture (Van Til to the rescue!).

One recommendation on our approaches to the NP(s)P: let's avoid using the whole "If its new, it ain't true" approach. While I believe the NP(s)P to be in error, the above rebuttal is open to "reversibles"--groups like Rome and others can apply the same standard against Luther. Now, we would immediately argue, "Luther was biblical; Rome is not." I would agree. But this takes us back to the original issue: "ad fontes." Here is where I think the letter-writer hit a stroke of insight--Luther went back to the Bible for his critique of Rome; NP(s)P goes beyond the Bible; as a Van Tillian I cannot follow.

Interestingly, Luther pointed out that the latin of repentance (I can't remember the word at the moment) doesn't mean "do penance" but "repent" (rough simplification, I know). NP(s)P says that the real definition of metanoia is inclusive of Luther's definition but not limited too it. But that's another debate for another day.
 

wsw201

Puritan Board Senior
Jacob,

In the book you read by Wright on the resurrection, did you get the same sense that Phillips did regarding Christ's death and resurrection?


I am gratified to read that Wright sees us justified by Christ´s full obedience. But the manner in which this comes to me seems to be a point of some divergence. Whereas Adam and Eve were clothed with the external righteous of an innocent sacrifice, I seem to gain my righteousness by participating in the righteousness of Jesus. The emphasis on his death is made to be his obedience to God in it "“ an obedience in which I participate by faith "“ rather than atonement he made for me. Here, then, is my second question: Does this not represent a reformulation of justification, one that involves a participative righteousness rather than an imputed one, rather than merely a new perspective on it?
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Participationist eschatology: Yes, I am familiar with it. Of course, I would phrase the doctrines differently as to keep them within the bounds of the Reformed faith. I don't like what he does on many aspects of salvation. At best he is confusing, at worst dangerous.

In some of his informal lectures he denies that we can do anything to merit our salvation (and he goes on the offensive against Catholic soteriology). However, and this is the crux of the matter, he reorients the traditional soteric texts as to make you think, "Well, given your premises, what does happen in salvation?" This, I fear, is where he errs.

On many aspects he is quite clear (even, and this is so ironic, GK Beale quotes him with MUCH approval in some of Beale's works), but on others I shudder at how bad he just phrased x doctrine.
 

AdamM

Puritan Board Freshman
Wayne, I cannot locate the debate or Pastor Phillips letter on the byfaithonline site. Could you give me a link, because I tend to have a hard time navigating the site? I am very interested to read the responses to the letter, because in my opinion, Rev. Phillips hits the nail on the head as it concerns people who want to claim that both views are somehow compatible for office holders in the PCA.

Thanks!
 

fredtgreco

Vanilla Westminsterian
Staff member
Originally posted by AdamM
Wayne, I cannot locate the debate or Pastor Phillips letter on the byfaithonline site. Could you give me a link, because I tend to have a hard time navigating the site? I am very interested to read the responses to the letter, because in my opinion, Rev. Phillips hits the nail on the head as it concerns people who want to claim that both views are somehow compatible for office holders in the PCA.

Thanks!
:ditto:
 

wsw201

Puritan Board Senior
The link was emailed to me. I think I have it at home. I know what you mean about navigating that site.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Originally posted by AdamM
Wayne, I cannot locate the debate or Pastor Phillips letter on the byfaithonline site. Could you give me a link, because I tend to have a hard time navigating the site? I am very interested to read the responses to the letter, because in my opinion, Rev. Phillips hits the nail on the head as it concerns people who want to claim that both views are somehow compatible for office holders in the PCA.

Thanks!

Rev Phillips probably gave the best short critique of NP(s)P. He seemed familiar with the material and stopped several otherwise effective attacks in their tracks.
 

LauridsenL

Puritan Board Freshman
Originally posted by AdamM
Wayne, I cannot locate the debate or Pastor Phillips letter on the byfaithonline site. Could you give me a link, because I tend to have a hard time navigating the site? I am very interested to read the responses to the letter, because in my opinion, Rev. Phillips hits the nail on the head as it concerns people who want to claim that both views are somehow compatible for office holders in the PCA.

Thanks!

It's not the same article, but here's a link to a 3-part series (a fourth is forthcoming) by Phillips on the NPP in Reformation21, a new online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals --

http://www.reformation21.org/Front_Desk/24/

BTW, Ligon Duncan also has an article on NPP and Justification in the same issue. The archives also have articles on justification by Bonar, Calvin, Gerstner, Duncan, and Sproul.



[Edited on 8-17-2005 by LauridsenL]
 
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