Sinclair Ferguson Returns

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My wife and I drove over to Wenatchee yesterday and had a great time with the saints at Trinity Church (CREC) there. I still had Sinclair Ferguson’s tape in the tape deck, and my wife hadn’t heard it, and so on the way back we listened to it again. And hence some more comments.

It seems to me that the Naive Perspective on Paul (NPP) requires us to say certain things about Paul that are genuinely problematic. This not to say that every adherent of the NPP would say such things out loud, but these seem to me to be logically entailed in the position. I want to argue that the NPP requires us to see St. Paul in the following ways. Somehow or other it requires us to say that:

1. Paul was an academic. But he wasn’t — paradigm shifts are what academics like to have, in the privacy of their own ivory towers. After several centuries of separating our arguments from our lives, we have gotten used to the idea. But Paul was not just following arguments, he was also following Christians.

2. Paul was overdoing it in his testimonies. But Paul told the unvarnished truth about his past. He was the chief of sinners. He was wicked and insolent — not simply mistaken on a point of theology. Had the decrees of God been other than what they were, and Paul had been killed on the Damascus road prior to the appearance of Jesus, he would have gone to Hell.

3. Paul was pastorally naive. But he was pastorally astute. Unregenerate men can take pride in anything, including their knowledge that they can’t take pride in anything. Paul knew this tendency inside out and takes aim at it in Ephesians 2:8-9, among other places. Even the faith you have is a gift of God lest any should boast. He says this because he anticipates that somebody will want to boast.

4. Paul saw people in ethnic clumps. But he saw both the individual and the people from which the individual came. This charge against Paul falls into the trap of 21st century identity politics. Of course Paul knew of Jews and Greeks, men and women, slave and free, and so on. But he also knew of godly Jews and ungodly Jews, godly Greeks and ungodly Greeks, ad infinitum.

5. Paul was polemically over the top. If the only problem with a Jew (according to Paul according to Sanders) is that he is not a Christian, and if on this basis, Paul calls such a man a dog, a mutilator of the flesh, false brother, etc. then the misunderstandings of Paul for the last four centuries were caused by Paul’s overheated rhetoric.

In saying all this, it is not necessary to postulate “merit legalism” on the part of the Pharisees, and I believe it would certainly be anachronistic to do so. The idea of merit was a medieval donkey to pull the cart of Me (a cart that sinful men always insist upon pulling). In different eras, we hitch up different animals to do the job, but the cart that is being pulled is the cart of Me. Call it “me legalism.” In this sense, even antinominans are legalists because they come up with their own standard (instead of God’s) and live by it. This is the case even if their standard is that “grace eliminates standards.”

This said, Ferguson makes the telling point that of course rabbinic Judaism was not Pelagian. And neither was medieval Catholicism Pelagian. To represent the Old Perspective as maintaining this is to debate a straw man. But they were both semi-Pelagian, and the Reformers were not mistaken to see the similarity between the two. The rabbis used a brown donkey and the RCs had a black donkey. So?

Having said all this it is important to note these comments are not directed at those who have benefitted from NPP writings in a both/and sense (as I certainly have). In this debate, false dichotomies abound. But those who get caught up in the rhetoric, and oppose everything about the “old perspective” really are exceedingly naive. There is a vast difference between saying that we have not yet gotten to the bottom of everything Paul taught (which is certainly true) and saying everything we thought we knew about Paul is wrong (which is certainly false).

One last comment. We are coming up on the four year anniversary of the original Auburn Avenue conference. About six months after that certain individuals took it upon themselves to falsely identify me as among those promulgating the NPP. Much time has elapsed since then, and lots of writing (on the record) has occurred. To this date, no one who erroneously identified me as holding to the NPP has corrected the error. (I appreciate Rick Phillips commenting on this site, and want to acknowledge that he is one of the few on the other side of this debate who will say this sort of thing publicly, regardless of what the politics of the thing might seem require. And I hope this praise from me does not land him in any trouble.) Anyhow, it is coming up on four years. So at this point in the game, I have finally decided to play my trump card. Not only is such an identification of me as a NPPer a violation of the 9th commandment (a point that has been made before), I will now take this to the next level. To do this sort of thing is also a violation of the Westminster Larger Catechism.

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