Originally published January 22, 2010
As many of you know, the most recent issue of Tabletalk is devoted to N.T. Wright and the New Perspective. My intention in this space is to blog through this issue, article by article. My anticipation is that I will like some of the articles very much, and others, not so much. So, let’s get started.
The first article is by R.C. Sproul, in which he takes N.T. Wright to task for the following statement: “We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself — in other words that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.”
R.C. rejects this as a straw man argument, where Wright sets up a position that is easy to reject, and then has an easy time of it rejecting it. “To intimate that Protestant orthodoxy believes that we are justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith is the king of all straw men.” He goes on: “I am aware of no theologian in the history of the Reformed tradition who believes or argues that a person can be justified by beliving in the doctrine of justification by faith. This is a pure and simple distortion of the Reformed tradition.” And, again, “The doctrine of justification by faith alone not only does not teach that justification is by believing the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but in fact, teaches that which is totally antithetical to the idea.” And last, “We understand that believing the doctrine of sola fide will save no one.”
It is worth noting at the start that R.C. and N.T. agree on the substance — that a man is justified by faith when he looks in faith to Christ crucified and risen, and not when he looks at himself looking at Christ. The difference here that remains (which is a sharp one) is over Wright’s implication that there are people in the Reformed stream who believe in the right doctrinal formulation of faith instead of believing in Jesus.
Now on what constitutes the teaching of Reformed orthodoxy, R.C. is perfectly correct. No reputable Reformed theologian, confession, or convocation has taught what Wright is rejecting, and if they did, they wouldn’t be reputable or Reformed. If someone started teaching this, we would all chase them down the road, throwing rocks at them, something we have gotten pretty good at.
But there is another layer to this, and I have to confess myself kind of amazed by it. And I am astonied, as the King James would put it, because this next layer down is the one where R.C. adopts New Perspective argumentation with regard to the history of Reformed theology, while N.T. Wright adopts the posture of the TRs, going for the heart, confessions be damned. Shall I explain?
As a theological point, R.C. is correct, and then some. He is correct, with dividends. But as a matter of pastoral concern, N.T. Wright is quite right to point to this phenomenon. The words can be right, the confession can be correct, the orthodoxy impeccable, and the heart of the supercilious Pharisee be high and lifted up precisely for that reason. Anybody who has been a pastor in conservative Reformed circles for more than fifteen minutes has surely seen this phenomenon — unless of course, he is an exhibit of it himself. Then he doesn’t see it. Ah, well.
John Newton, no fooler-about with New Perspectives, he, pointed to this pattern.
“And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of . . . Self righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace” (John Newton, “On Controversy,” The Works of John Newton, Vol. 1, p. 272.)
So here is the weird thing. A fundamental mistake that E.P. Sanders makes is that of declaring first century Judaism to be a religion of grace based on their own testimonies about it. Turns out that first century Jews didn’t walk around muttering to themselves about how they would going to shinny up the greasy pole of self-salvation by works, works, works. No, they gave the glory to God, just like the Pharisee in the Temple did — “I thank thee, God, that I am not like other men . . .” What’s wrong with that? Nothing, and yet he went home unjustified. He was condemned in the midst of his declaration of soli Deo gloria. That doesn’t make the confession soli Deo gloria wrong; it makes his heart wrong. Sanders’ problem is that he believes what these guys say about themselves, instead of believing what Jesus and the apostles said about them. And as far as the net assessment of the Pharisees in the eyes of the New Testament is concerned, the Pharisees’ spiritual condition resembled a polecat crawling out of a hollow tree after a heavy rain. But the paperwork of grace was in order.
The irony is that the mistake Wright makes about first century Jews, R.C. makes about the Reformed, and the valuable insight that Wright offers pastorally about some of the tight-shoed Reformed, he declines to apply to first century Jews. In short, R.C. judges the Reformed tradition by the paperwork, and first century Jews by the heart. Wright judges the Reformed by the heart, and judges the first century Jews by the paperwork. It is enough to make you go huh.