If the Federal Vision Were a Beer

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My friend Cal Beisner sent me a copy of a new P & R book, which I just finished reading this morning. The book was entitled Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, so guess what it was about. Overall I would rate it as a very fine book, one that I highly recommend, but one with a handful of unfortunate spots.

The author, Guy Waters, studied under E.P. Sanders, and so this book should be read for what it is — a careful, sane, and nuanced criticism of the various forms of the New Perspective from someone who is well qualified to offer that criticism.

The book begins with a background history of modern critical thinking on Paul (Bultmann and such), and treats various figures in the development of the New Perspective (and as the title indicates, there is more than one New Perspective). Waters works through Stendahl, Sanders, Raisanen (sorry, can’t do those little Scandanavian dot thingies over the gentleman’s a’s), Dunn, and N.T. Wright.

In descending order, I agreed enthusiastically with Waters’ criticism of Sanders and Raisanen, I agreed almost entirely with his criticism of Dunn, and largely with his criticism of N.T. Wright. I do think there were a few places where Waters does not do justice to Wright (e.g. pp. 133, 142), where he fills in what Wright “must be saying.” But the section where Waters describes why N.T. Wright is so attractive (and genuinely helpful) to many among the Reformed was really insightful, and I thought, dead on.

The unfortunate spots in this book are small, but unfortunately, still there. The last eight pages of the book undertake to deal with Norman Shepherd and the summary doctrinal statement of the session of the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church. To attempt this in the scope of just a few pages, and as the conclusion of a book dedicated to the New Perspective, can be counted on to confuse and mislead. And if there is one controversy where we could use a little less of that, it has been this one.

More than once in this whole farce, it would have been a good idea for everyone to look down and double-check the color of their own uniform. Allow me to throw together a bunch of random facts that should show clearly that this should have been done in these 8 pages. Norman Shepherd’s project has almost nothing to do with the New Perspective. Richard Gaffin wrote a cover blurb for Call of Grace, Shepherd’s book, put out by P & R, the same folks who put out Waters’ book. But Richard Gaffin is commended in the bibliography of Waters’ book for writing a fine critique of the New Perspective. In fact, at this next Auburn Avenue conference, Richard Gaffin is going to be engaged in a critical but amicable discussion with N.T. Wright. Now, when we Federal Vision troublemakers are sitting there listening to the discussion between Gaffin and Wright, though Christian charity will radiate from us in every direction like heat from a stove, where shall our doctrinal sympathies be? Mine will be with Gaffin; his concerns are mine. This means, according to the bibliography, that since his concerns are the concerns of Waters, my concerns are those of Waters. But Gaffin is friendly to Shepherd, and I don’t know who is on what team anymore.

Now it is quite possible that I am lined up with Gaffin because I am a Federal Vision Amber, and that some of the Federal Vision Lagers might sympathize more with Wright. Maybe, but I don’t think so. And in any case, the whole thing is way too complicated to undertake a treatment in 8 pages. The only thing that those 8 pages will do is reinforce the false impression that the Federal Vision is just another form of the New Perspective, but with minor adaptations to the American Reformed scene.

This is particularly problematic for me since it has been about a year since the special issue of Credenda came out, critiquing the New Perspective. The central concerns I laid out in A Pauline Take on the New Perspective line up very nicely with the central concerns of Waters’ book. So why are agreements being ignored?

Still, one last positive comment. Even in this unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise fine book, Waters still writes like a gentleman and a Christian. It is evident that he is not in the business of hyperventilating, heaving dead cats, or getting spittle on his keyboard. He seeks to make distinctions worth making, even in this section, and I believe that doctrinal discussion with a man like this would be a discussion well worth having.

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