Thursday, July 29

Covenant Confusion?

I have often mentioned the online service of The Discerning Reader as a great place to shop for the best selection of Reformed books, a rich variety of music, and some of the most insightful commentary on the contemporary scene available anywhere-in the real world or the virtual world. Every month the service digests and anthologizes the best of the best and the newest of the new into a topical e-newsletter. This month, editor Rob Schlapfer has offered up a very helpful guide through the current conflict over the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision of the Auburn Avenue Theology. As usual, Rob and the Discerning crew don't exactly take sides--or rather, they offer helpful critiques of all sides and show their due appreciation for all sides of what is becoming a particularly nasty snarl. Indeed, Rob's approach is so balanced and his recommendations so ecumenical--without ever becoming spinelessly mushy--I thought it might be helpful to reproduce his entire editorial right here:

Unless you've been busy discovering "the purpose driven life" for the last few months, you might have felt theological tremors in the aftermath of the most recent controversy shaking up the world of conservative and Reformed theology: "the new perspective on Paul."

No, it's not a new abstract-expressionist movement in painting. And it really isn't that new. But it has come center stage recently as more and more teachers of New Testament theology embrace it in one form or another, passing it down to impressionable students who bring it into the orbit of local Christian gatherings.

In a nutshell, "New Perspective" (hereafter "NPP") proponents argue -- with a great deal of variation between them -- that Paul's writings, particularly Romans, have been misunderstood at some critical points since the time of the Reformation. They argue that, beginning with Luther, the Reformed tradition has been guilty of reading its own 16th century controversy with Medieval Roman Catholicism into Paul's arguments in Romans (and elsewhere) regarding - most notably - justification by faith. Rather than seeing the latter as the central motif in Paul's thinking, which the Reformers did, NPP proponents see it as one of a number of themes that fall under a much larger heading. And while they claim (generally) to not deny "the thing that Luther was getting at" -- the reality of being justified by faith -- their exegesis of the relevant texts suggests that his reading was more autobiographical than true to Paul.

NPP proponents see this as an exegetical issue: how do we read the texts?

But critics see it as an assault on justification itself -- "the article by which a church stands or falls" - and, ultimately, the Gospel.

It is important that we understand what may be at stake with regard to the inroads of NPP thinking. I say "may" because some of us have not cast our lot entirely with any of the various options being set forth, including the traditional one. (Contrary to what I have read about me, I am not an "NPP proponent.") We are listening to the various monologues going on with open yet critical ears, appreciating many of NPP's insights while tempering them with caution as we weigh the concerns of its critics. To that end, we've decided to offer some resources that should help us all understand the current controversy from (hopefully) every side.

Beginning with the concerns, Mike Horton's Modern Reformation magazine has dedicated its July-August edition to this subject under the title Covenant Confusion. This issue reflects the position held by Westminster Seminary California, which recently published a lengthy statement opposing what it sees as a new assault on Reformed confessionalism. While the magazine's focus is more upon the manner in which NPP is making inroads in Reformed circles, the principles these articles set forth can easily be applied to non-Reformed circles. Because we believe it is important to weigh the possible dangers of NPP, we are providing the magazine free upon request when you place any order at The Discerning Reader while supplies last. And while I am sure there will be much response to come from this issue, one web article by Rich Lusk has already noted -- by way of criticism -- our own concern about the direction Mike and his colleagues take.

For those of you who want to wrestle with New Perspective thinking first hand, we would highly recommend Tom Wright's The Climax of the Covenant along with the various volumes in his Christian Origins and the Question of God. These are scholarly volumes that will have most of us reaching for our theological dictionaries from time to time. Still, they represent one of the most comprehensive conservative treatments of the New Testament in recent memory. A more basic introduction can be found in his popular What Saint Paul Really Said -- although its brief scope tends to beg as many questions as it answers, if not more. For our money, though, Tom's recent lecture's on Romans may be the best place to start -- which is why we are working to make them available online. There are also numerous scholarly books that provide varying degrees of criticism available, most notably from Seyoon Kim and Stephen Westerholm.

For those of you who want to learn about the "Federal Vision" -- a Reformed/NPP hybrid -- a new book is available, featuring some its most vocal proponents. The Federal Vision features articles by Douglas Wilson, Steve Schlissel, Peter Leithart, James B. Jordan and other representatives of what used to be called the "Auburn Avenue" theology. While I am not aware of any books available that offer a critique, our friend Richard Phillips has published an excellent article raising concerns about "Federal Vision" thinking which includes some criticism of Tom Wright. It is one of the best things we've seen and is highly recommended.

If you are in the Southern California area, you might want to check out the debate scheduled between James White and Douglas Wilson over the issue of justification. Doug may well be the most outspoken proponent of "The Federal Vision." And, of course, no one can defend the traditional Reformation view with more clarity and persuasiveness than James. (They are also pretty funny guys, so it may even be as much fun as it is informative.)

One final recommendation is that you consider attending the Auburn Avenue Pastors Conference at the beginning of the new year. This year's featured speakers are Reformed New Testament scholar Richard Gaffen and the infamous N.T. (Tom) Wright himself. In addition to the presentations, I am confident there will be much time slotted for questions and interaction. And there will undoubtedly be critics who will press both speakers to address all the thorny details that are involved in the debate.

The Reformation construct of justification has served us well for nearly 500 years. Thoughtful Christians should think (and pray) long and hard before accepting a new paradigm in its place. But where NPP sheds light, which it often does, through the careful exegesis of Scripture, we dare not resist it - lest we rob ourselves of the full glory found in Paul's announcement of good news. After all, to remain bound by tradition shows a failure to appreciate the most central issue of the Reformation.

We recommend "family engagement" in the spirit of love that ought to mark us as the true followers of Jesus. And this is best done with humble hearts, generosity of spirit towards other participants, and critical minds bound by the Bible alone. As Luther himself stated so well, unless we are persuaded by Scripture, we cannot accept anything that someone says belongs to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. That is our perspective, on the new perspective.

One final note: Rob doesn't mention it in his editorial above, but there is indeed a published colloquim volume with both the pros and the cons of the Federal Vision theology. It is available from Knox Theological Seminary, the school I helped get off the ground when I was serving with Dr. Kennedy in South Florida and where I am currently studying for my D.Min. The collection of essays was edited by my friend Cal Beisner.

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