Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul
Guy Prentiss Waters
P&R Publishing, 2004
Along with the Federal Vision-ist stuff often comes discussion about the New (!) Perspectives on Paul (NPP). And so the need for a well-researched and thoughtfully written book; Guy Prentiss Waters seems to be the right man for the job. Having all the big letters after his name (MDiv, PHd, etc.), he's also an ordained PCA minister and an assistant professor of Biblical studies at Belhaven College. His qualifications are again boosted by the fact that he studed under E. P. Sanders and Richard B. Hays, two leaders in the NPP movement (the two current big names are N. T. Wright and James Dunn).
What is the NPP, you ask? Reformation21's first issue was on it; therein, Ligon Duncan had these helpful summary comments:
[The NPP] suggests that the Protestant Reformers’ exegesis of Paul on justification and their theological formulations of what Paul taught about our being justified by grace through faith alone, and not by works, based on the work of Christ alone, imputed to us were mistaken. The NPP even questions whether Paul was primarily concerned with the question “how can I be saved?”
How did the Reformers get it so wrong? By focusing on justification and excluding Paul's main concern: Paul wasn't concerned with salvation by grace over/against salvation by merit. He saw contemporary Judaism as a religion of grace, not merit. Therefore, the biggest question of the gospel is "How can a Gentile be saved? How can Italians and Swedes be included in the Jewish covenant people?" (Note: historic reformed exegesis has never thought Judaism was, de facto, a religion of merit. But, we have understood Paul to criticize contemporary Judaism as a malformed religion of merit - Pelagian, if we were to import a good theological term.)
Waters does a great job tracing the roots of the NPP. The roots of this movement lie squarely in the historical-critical tradition of German scholarship - historically unfriendly ground for those who believed the Bible was, well, the Bible. He does a good job showing the sometimes vast distinctions between these scholars, as well as the threads that tied them together.
Along came E. P. Sanders, who claimed to have gone back to original sources in Pauline-era Judaism and said he could prove that 1st-century Judaism was not a religion of merit, but grace. While reformed scholars have always placed high value on the historical context of the epistles, Sanders' move is one to watch out for: placing historical study above what the text actually says. In essence, NPP says, "Because we know the Judaism Paul grew up in was a religion of grace, he couldn't have been saying what everyone always thought he was saying." When you take that mindset into Scripture, you're always going to find evidence to back up your claim.
And while each of these scholars disagree at points (especially in their approach to Scripture: Ephesians, Titus and 1-2 Timothy are generally thought to be "post-Pauline"), Waters points out these main theological errors, which are built on his discussion of NPP scholarly errors:
- Confusion of legalism, grace and merit
- Ignoring the doctrine of imputation - this is perhaps the most dangerous part of the NPP. The ignoring - or outright denial - of the doctrine of double imputation is disastrous for Christians. This doctrine states that, by grace through faith, Christ's righteousness is imputed to me and my sins are imputed to Him. Thus I am and ever shall be, both justified and adopted, declared innocent and declared family. For more on this, see John Piper's Counted Righteous in Christ. By denying this, the NPP takes away what the protestant world has always looked to for assurance of salvation.
- Upsetting the balance between forensic and transforming grace. Reformation scholarship helped us to see grace's effects as both forensic (guaranteeting us a "not-guilty" verdict in God's courtroom) and transforming (making us more like Christ). Wright says that the believer's final acceptance, rather than the righteousness of Christ imputed to him, "is his covenantal faithfulness."
- Redefining justification - The NPP has recast justification as an ecclesiological (church) issue rather than a soteriological (salvation) issue. Being justified, to the NPP, is being part of the church, being part of the covenant community. While reformers have always rejoiced in being counted one of God's people, being "united with the Jews on equal terms" (Martin Luther), this cannot be the exclusive heart of justification.
Waters finishes the book by considering "what's at stake for reformed Christianity?" In this section, he addresses the main things we have to lose should NPP take the day (our view of Scripture, why Christ came to die, the role of baptism, the doctrine of regeneration, etc.), shows some ties between NPP and the Federal Vision folks as well as Norman Shepherd. (I was struck several times with the thought, "Boy, this sure sounds like something the FV guys would like." Especially in a great emphasis on covenant-keeping and the power of the sacraments.)
Overall, this is a good book that clearly has a lot of study and thought behind it. Waters does a good job critiquing the NPP and I leave the book feeling that I don't really need to keep reading on the subject; my NPP cup is full. Should you buy it? Probably not. Unless you're a pastor or someone responsible for the souls of many others, it's probably just trivia (and fairly dry trivia) to you. But if this is a skirmish you need to fight, Waters' book fits the bill.