A Response to Phil Johnson on N.T. Wright

What do I think of Johnson’s critique of Wright? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

ETA: My first writing of this said R.C. Sproul. I was notified that this was by Phil Johnson so I have done necessary edits..

When I was in seminary, for a class on salvation for systematic theology proper, we were assigned to read The Future of Justification by John Piper. This was a response to N.T. Wright’s work on the topic of justification. I had heard about it some, but I never took the time to really look at it. As I read Piper, he would frequently quote Wright. When I read those quotes of Wright I would think “That certainly seems like a plausible way of looking at it more in line with Second Temple Judaism.” Before too long after finishing that book, I got Wright’s book on the topic and went through it and while I don’t sign on the dotted line yet, I do find it quite persuasive.

A friend asked me about this all yesterday. He has a fear that Wright has a position here that is heretical. Our discussion, which was friendly and I do like that, ended with him sending me this from Phil Johnson. So let’s take a look at this piece.

Johnson starts off with glowing praise of Wright and what a great scholar he is. Before too long, the clouds darken. Wright has a position that is not evangelical at all obviously. He has a position that denies Sola Fide.

Let me point out early on then that I am not a Calvinist. You can hold that against me if you want, but I’m just not, and that was before reading Wright even. I have never subscribed to Calvinism. I just do not find it a persuasive position on the Bible.

So let’s gon on and quote Johnson.

Wright begins by giving a sketch of the pedigree of twentieth-century scholarship on Paul. He acknowledges that the New Perspective is deeply rooted in the work of a line of scholars who were by no means evangelicals. Indeed, most of them were hostile to the evangelical perspective. He lists, for example, Albert Schweitzer, W. D. Davies, Ernst Käsemann, and E.P. Sanders as the main influences in developing the New Perspective.

Schweitzer’s contribution was to emphasize the fact that Paul was a Hebrew, not a Hellenist. Paul thought in Jewish categories, not Greek ones. Schweitzer therefore argued that the traditional Protestant emphasis on justification by faith missed the heart of Pauline theology. Paul’s emphasis was on our union with Christ [true enough], but Schweitzer argued that it is therefore wrong to think of justification by faith as a forensic declaration, the way historic Reformed and Protestant theologians always have. Here’s how Wright describes Schweitzer’s view on page 14: “What mattered [to Schweitzer] was being ‘in Christ’, rather than the logic-chopping debates about justification, [and therefore] one was free to live out the life of Christ in new and different ways.”

Notice, then: the historic Protestant understanding of justification by faith was under attack from the very birth of the earliest ideas that led to this new interpretation of the apostle Paul. Forensic justification was denied in favor of living out the life of Christ.

Please note that part of the problem with this and with later looks is that this is simply poisoning the well. These people were not evangelicals. So what? It’s good to read critics of our position. They can point us to our blind faults. If the evangelical perspective has not been correct all these years, maybe it’s the others who can show us that who are just as much trained in the field as we are.

What has to be asked is can the data be separated from those who hold it? If the answer is yes, then there is no problem, and I don’t see any other answer. Data is data regardless of who discovers it. We also have no reason to think Wright would be wanting to be in line with someone just because of who they are. Wright has in fact written a leading evangelical defense of the resurrection of Jesus. (You know, the central fact of Christian teaching.)

Wright’s point seems to be that the New Perspective on Paul has an impressive scholarly pedigree. What I want to point out is that these views are rooted in the kind of scholarship that has historically been hostile to evangelical distinctives, such as the authority and inspiration of Scripture. It is ironic, and I think not without significance, that the earliest exponents of this new expertise on Paul were all men who were happy to discard whatever portions of the Pauline writings did not fit their theories. So you have experts on Paul who reject large portions of what Paul actually wrote.

Okay. Did Wright do this? Has Wright jettisoned parts of Paul just because they disagree with his theories? It reminds me of how for a time thinkers in the medieval period were hesitant to take the words of Aristotle. He had been used by the Muslims after all. It was Aquinas who took this information and said it could be used by the church and in essence Christianized Aristotle. Did he take every belief Aristotle held? No. Still, he took his system of thought and said that it was in line with Christianity. He was also right.

I think Wright has done similar. He has not thrown out the material because it comes from non-evangelicals. Instead, he has looked at the data, said they might be on to something, and figured how it does work better with the Pauline corpus in his mind than the traditional interpretation. If this is so, the point of origins is irrelevant and just a big genetic fallacy.

Wright also claims that our misunderstanding of Judaism reached its zenith with Luther and the Reformers—in other words, historic Protestantism. Wright thinks evangelicals in particular have perpetuated the misunderstanding because of our systematic and theological approach to interpreting the New Testament. We’re guilty of thinking in Greek categories rather than Jewish ones. We have been too prone to read Augustine’s conflicts with Pelagius and Luther’s conflict with Rome back into the biblical text, and that has corrupted and prejudiced our understanding of the Jewish culture surrounding Paul.

Note what Johnson is saying about Wright. It is not our misunderstand of Scripture. It is our misunderstanding of Judaism. That did affect how we read Scripture. I think the Reformers were right in their stance on a problem in the RCC back in their day. They looked at the issue of their day and I think they gave the right answer. The problem was they also looked at what Paul was saying and thought Paul was dealing with the same issue. It was understandable why they would think that, but were they right? That is the key question.

For instance, if we look at the Gospels, we don’t find this being discussed that much. There is not really discussion on justification. It could be damaging that one time Jesus is asked about this topic, he tells the questioner to follow the commandments and then go and sell everything he has and give to the poor. He hardly gave the answer of justification by grace through faith.

Does that mean that it is false? No. It means that Jesus knew the heart of this person and this person was not willing to sacrifice to be a disciple. Jesus often speaks about the cost of discipleship. The strong words in Luke are highly misunderstood but they are the ones about hating your own mother and father and brother and sister. It doesn’t mean to literally hate, but Jesus is saying “Don’t become a disciple unless you are willing to give up everything.”

And let’s face it, we’re all still working on that one!

Let’s go to Jesus’s message in Mark. He starts by saying the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel. Question. What was He telling people to believe? If He was saying justification by grace through faith, on what grounds? No one other than Jesus had the foggiest idea that He would die on a cross and rise again, yet there was something in Jesus’s message to already be believed. What was it?

His baptism had had Him displayed as the Son of God which would be implicit evidence that He is the Messiah. The good news then is that the Kingdom of God is here. God is becoming king. Jesus regularly spoke about the Kingdom of God in His messages. Jesus spoke of it often. We barely say a word about it in church today.

How does this tie in with Paul? Go to 1 Cor. 15. Paul says that the Gospel is that Jesus Christ died and was buried and rose again for our sins. For Paul, this was the sign that the kingdom had come. Jesus being the promised Messiah meant something. The promise to the patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had come to pass. The one whom Moses wrote about had arrived. By raising Jesus from the dead, God had vindicated Him and shown that this man is His chosen king to rule the world. It was a new age. Our modern new age culture is wrong. The true new age began when Jesus was declared king of this world. Christ does not find His identity in us. We find ours in Him.

Let’s also keep in mind we have something the Reformers did not have. We have access to Jewish writings they were not aware of that have changed the way we see the culture and we can see that we were wrong in some understandings. I am sure that if the Reformers were here, they would be eagerly wanting to look at these writings and learn all they could from them and if they were wrong about something, they would want to be the first ones to know it.

Please note also that you can say all of this and still say the Reformers were right in their struggle. You can still say that faith alone is all that one needs to be saved. We will get into more of this as we go along.

He goes on to say (still on p. 32), “This point is clearly of enormous importance, but I cannot do more than repeat it in case there is any doubt: Jews like Saul of Tarsus were not interested in an abstract, timeless, ahistorical system of salvation. They were not even primarily interested in, as we say today, ‘going to heaven when they died.’” (By the way, that is a ridiculous statement, and if you want to see how ridiculous it is, read Hebrews 11:13–16. Those who had true faith were interested in going to heaven when they died. Hebrews 11:16: “they desired a better country, that is, an heavenly [one].”)

Except it’s not a ridiculous statement. What we have apparently is one text in the Bible that Johnson thinks makes his point. We don’t even have anything from Paul who this is supposed to be about. When Hebrews speaks of a heavenly country, what were they thinking? Going some place else when they died? No. They were thinking I think about God making this world His abode. This world is not an accident. It is not an afterthought.

Unfortunately, we have done this so much that we think going to heaven is the point of Christianity and then it’s not often so much about heaven as it is a get out of hell free card. You can have a call to salvation in a church service that talks about heaven and says absolutely nothing about the resurrection. It has no call to repentance. It says nothing about discipleship. Instead, it all becomes about how do I get to heaven.

If Johnson thinks that one passage can make something a ridiculous statement, then I have one passage from Jesus (Said three times) about selling all you have and giving to the poor to have eternal life. Therefore, it would be “ridiculous” to think that Jesus would believe in justification by faith. Do I think that? Not at all. I think all the passages have to be properly understood. The same with the Hebrews passage.

Johnson quotes Wright saying

Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian or attains to a relationship with God. (I’m not even sure how Paul would express, in Greek, the notion of ‘relationship with God’, but we’ll leave that aside.) The problem he addresses is: should ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? Now this question is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, [the problem] has to do, quite obviously, with the question of how you define the people of God. Are they to be defined by the badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way?

At this point, the question to ask is “Is Wright right?” Let’s go back to the sources and look and see. Let’s look at those writings we have now that the Reformers did not have. Let’s look at the research. Johnson responds with

Wright is explicitly acknowledging that if the New Perspective is correct, and first-century Judaism had no issue with works-righteousness, then all the traditional interpretations of Romans, Galatians, and the other Pauline epistles must be thrown out the window, and we must go back to square one in our exegesis of the apostle Paul.

Wright’s critics, including me, have pointed out that this is a pretty audacious claim. Wright is claiming, in effect, is that he is the first person in the history of the church—or at least since the time of Augustine—who has correctly understood the apostle Paul (and hence the majority of the New Testament). Wright is pretty careful not to state explicitly that he thinks this would require a complete overhaul of Protestant confessional standards. And some of Wright’s Presbyterian advocates in America have denied with great passion that Wright’s beliefs pose any threat whatsoever to the historic Protestant creeds. But it would seem patently obvious to me that if the whole foundation of our Pauline exegesis is brought back to square one, then we can throw out every creed and systematic theology ever written by anyone who adhered to the old perspective on Paul, and start over with our theology as well. And in practice, that is precisely what is happening. That’s the very upheaval you see in the various controversies that are being addressed in this conference this weekend.

One can picture what it would be like if R.C. Johnson had been in a position of power in the RCC at the time of Luther.

“Can anyone believe this monk? He thinks he is the first one in church history for 1,500 years to truly understand the Scriptures and the rest of us have got them wrong! This is surely an audacious claim! If we follow him, we will have to go back to square one in our understanding of Paul!”

I remember years ago someone sent me a conversation with Al Mohler and others talking about Wright’s perspective. One speaker on this panel said “Wright may think he’s found something new in the Scripture, but he’s going against the tradition.” Yes. We as Protestants should have a problem with someone going with what they think they found in the Scriptures when that goes against our traditional understanding. Pardon me, but isn’t that what happened in the Reformation?

It’s happened elsewhere too. Galileo went against the tradition at the time as well. I also do think Galileo was arrogant. There was something else about him too. He was right. If we just say “Tradition!” then we always risk just being wrong. We dare not say we want skeptics to be open to Christianity if we are not open to being wrong.

We go on.

Of course, the apostle Paul uses that phrase repeatedly. In Galatians 2:16— in that one verse alone—he uses it three times: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” According to Wright, when Paul spoke of “the works of the law, he did not have in mind the moral requirements of the law of God. Rather, he was speaking of the badges of Jewish nationalism—circumcision, the dietary laws, the priesthood, the holy days, and whatnot. In other words, he’s talking about the ceremonial law. Quoting again from page 120, Wright says that the question Paul is addressing in Galatians is “the question of how you define the people of God. Are they to be defined by the badges of the Jewish race, or in some other way?”

In this, I think Wright is definitely on to something. Peter’s main issue was not what must I do to be saved. His issue was how he would be perceived by the others. People living the Gospel do not need to eat according to the Law. The Law does not show that they are Christians. It is faith in Christ. Peter’s actions were a denial of that. Peter’s salvation was never an issue.

Paul is then saying to the Galatians that the Judaizers think that to be a Christian, you must keep the law. It is not so you can be saved, but to show that you are saved. All true Christians will keep the Law. How can you recognize a Christian? He keeps the law. Unfortunately, this would catapult us right back to Judaism. How do you recognize a Jew? He keeps the law. How do you recognize a Christian? He keeps the law. Christ becomes useless then.

So what is it that sets a Christian apart? Faith in Christ. How do you know someone is a Christian? They have faith in Christ. If you want to say the law is what identifies you, then you indeed have to keep all of it.

Wright insists that in the true Pauline theology, justification by faith has almost nothing to do with a person’s standing before God, but it has everything to do with the corporate makeup of the covenant community. To quote Wright again (p. 119),

Justification” in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about “getting in,” or indeed about “staying in,” as about “how you could tell who was in.” In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.

So in Wright’s view, justification is not about how we relate to God; it’s about how ethnic and cultural groups relate to one another. Page 122: “What Paul means by justification … is not ‘how you become a Christian’, so much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family.’ … [Justification] is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences.”

Is Wright right? I don’t think Johnson is. Wright is not saying it is about how we relate to one another. It’s about indeed who the community is. How the community treats itself is a good question, but the question is who is a part of the community. Whose community is it? The community of God.

This fits in very well with Judaism at the time. We in our world are much more individualistically based. To say to march to the beat of your own drummer and be your own man would make no sense to them. We often have the habit of reading our questions into Scripture thinking the Scripture is addressing the same questions when it is not. I think this is what is often happening in our reading of Genesis 1 as an example.

Is there no soteriological or personal dimension in Wright’s understanding of justification, then? There is, and this is one of the most troubling aspects of his work. Like many today who are proposing new understandings of justification, he bifurcates justification into immediate and future aspects, and pushes the personal and salvific dimensions of justification into the eschatalogical future, in a final judgment. Page 129: “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly … on the basis of the entire life.”

That’s troubling for two reasons: first, it makes a person’s covenant faithfulness—obedience—the basis of final justification, thus grounding the ultimate declaration of righteousness in the believer’s own works, rather than grounding justification completely in the finished work of Christ on our behalf.

And it does no such thing whatsoever. Last I checked, we all seem to think that works are a part of the evidence of salvation. James is right. If you say you have faith and you have no works, then you do not really have faith. How is this a problem? I don’t know any evangelical who wants to say you can say the sinner’s prayer, live like a heathen, and still get eternal life at the end. Faith in Christ ought to result in some works.

And even though Wright’s defenders have tried desperately to exonerate him from this charge, it seems clear to me that throughout his book, he is selfconsciously and deliberately rejecting the main distinctive—the material principle—of the Protestant Reformation. In Luther’s words, this is the article by which the church stands or falls. In Calvin’s words, it is the principle hinge of all religion.

If Johnson thinks this is convincing, then I’ll use the same principle. It seems clear to me that Johnson has encountered a new idea and it goes against what he has always believed in his mind, so he has started pushing the panic button. I think this is also what Geisler did when Licona came out with his ideas and it is sadly a common evangelical tactic.

I also think it’s odd to say the church stands or falls by this. What happened to the resurrection? Do we really think the world was hearing in the first century “Good news! You can be justified by grace through faith!” and that was the contorversial message? The controversial message was about this dead man named Jesus who was alive and God’s Messiah through whom He would rule the world.

And you see this most clearly in the fifth distinctive of Wright’s position that I want to highlight for you. Here is idea number five, if you’re making a list of these: According to Wright, Protestant and Reformed exegetes who in the mainstream of evangelical theology have all misread what Paul meant when he spoke of “the righteousness of God.” According to Wright, divine righteousness is not an asset that can be imputed from God to the believer. It has nothing to do with virtue or excellence or moral rectitude that can be imputed. Instead, God’s righteousness is simply His covenant faithfulness. And when Paul speaks of the believer’s righteousness as a righteousness that comes from God, he is talking about covenant membership, our status in the covenant, which ultimately must be maintained by our own faithfulness.

Now if that sounds to you like implicit denial of the classic doctrine of imputation, I believe that is precisely what Wright is saying. He downplays or denies or redefines the principle of imputation at every turn. Page 98: “If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys, or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom.”

According to Wright (p. 123), 1 Corinthians 1:30 is “the only passage I know of where something called ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ,’ a phrase more often found in post-Reformation theology and piety than in the New Testament, finds any basis in the text.” Wright then goes on to argue that if we are to claim 1 Corinthians 1:30 as a proof text about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, “we must also be prepared to talk of the imputed wisdom of Christ; the imputed sanctification of Christ … “ and so on.

Say what you will about Wright; he himself makes it abundantly clear that he does not like the notion of imputation, because he does not believe divine righteousness is something that can be reckoned, or put to the account, of the believer. And he is equally silent—ominously silent—about the biblical teaching that the believer’s guilt was imputed to Christ and paid for on the cross.

We can wonder if Johnson has changed any of this since Wright has now a whole book on the atonement, but I am doubtful that he has. Wright is correct that only one text explicitly says anything like that. It’s strange that Johnson would seem to have a problem with Wright saying he only has one text that can be said to argue for this position when that’s exactly what Johnson did earlier in this article with Hebrews 11:13-16.

Therefore, he says, we have got the gospel all wrong. And he says this repeatedly. Page 60: “‘The gospel’ is not, for Paul, a message about ‘how one gets saved’, in an individual and ahistorical sense.” Page 41; here is how Wright 10 describes what he is convinced is a misunderstanding of the gospel: “In certain circles within the church … ‘the gospel’ is supposed to be a description of how people get saved; of the theological mechanism whereby, in some people’s language, Christ takes our sin and we his righteousness.”

Some people’s language”? Wright himself disdains to use such language. He is careful to insist that he is not intolerant of people who do use that language. He goes on (p. 41): “I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it’s what Paul means.”

But if that’s not what Paul means, it’s not what Scripture means. Is Wright suggesting that Protestants have historically proclaimed a “different gospel”? It would certainly be uncharacteristic of Tom Wright to anathematize anyone, but he does rather clearly imply that he thinks Protestants have been getting the gospel wrong since the 16th century.

And many Calvinists have been saying the same about others. Anybody seen that saying “Calvinism is the Gospel”? If that is really meant, then that would mean anyone who is an arminian is holding to a different Gospel. Wright has not denied the Gospel. Instead, He has broadened it. It’s not just about the individual. It’s about the community of God and God Himself.

Johnson says Wright thinks we’ve been getting it wrong for a long time. So did Martin Luther. If we followed Johnson consistently, we would have to get rid of the Reformation.

Now I promised to give you as many biblical answers to Tom Wright’s New Perspective as time allows, and in the time that remains, that is what I want to do. Let me try to answer each one of the five ideas I have outlined with at least one or two biblical arguments:

First, there’s the notion that we have misunderstood first-century Judaism. I answer that Tom Wright has erred by lending more credence to secular scholarship than he does to the testimony of Scripture. We ought to draw our understanding of the first-century religious climate from the New Testament itself, and not from the disputed conclusions of a handful of skeptical twentieth-century scholars who refuse to bow to the authority of Scripture.

And I say Johnson has not looked at the data that has been presented. Is the data wrong because some non-Christians came up with it? Do we really want to present an echo chamber approach? We tell non-Christians they should learn from Christians and non-Christians both, but we will not do the same?

And what about Johnson? Is he going directly to Scripture? I contend that he has pointed to tradition in this piece far more than he has to Scripture. Once again, I thought the Reformation had something to do with questioning long held traditions because of the truth of Scripture, but maybe I was wrong.

And what does Scripture say about the religion of the Jews, and the Pharisees in particular? Scripture clearly teaches that their central error was that they trusted too much in their own righteousness rather than resting their faith in the Old Testament truth that God would cover them with the garment of His own righteousness. Paul says this explicitly in Romans 10:3: “They being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.” Jesus also said it repeatedly. He constantly criticized the Pharisees for trying to justify themselves. Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican? Luke 18:9 says Jesus told that parable “unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” And the whole point of Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3 was to show that he once had “confidence in the flesh”—those are Paul’s precise words in Philippians 3:4. But Paul turned from that, jettisoned his self-righteousness, regarded it as dung, and testified that his one hope now, as a Christian and a believer, was “To be found in [Christ,] not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”

Unfortunately, quoting a Scripture does not mean your interpretation of it is correct. The Jews in Romans 10 were rejecting Christ and saying “We will show our righteousness by the Law.” That would fit in just fine with what Wright says. In Luke, the Pharisee is not righteous because he keeps the law. The tax collector is because he lives by faith. Again, this is just fine with Wright. In Phillipians 3, Paul was one who kept the law blamelessly by his words, but his righteousness was not in keeping the law, but by identifying himself as a believer in Christ. Again, Wright would have no problem.

Wright tries to do away with the force of that text by removing the word righteousness, and suggesting that Paul was talking about “covenant membership.” But both the context and the very words of the passage prove that what Paul was describing was the difference between two contrasting ideas of righteousness—one he calls “my own righteousness,” and the other, an alien righteousness—the righteousness of God in Christ.

Not at all. Paul being faithful to the old covenant would not save if God had made a new covenant. The righteousness of the new is superior to the old for it is based on the fulfillment of the promises of Christ. That Johnson has not considered what someone who works to understand this can come up quickly shows me that Johnson is just pushing the panic button.

Wright is simply wrong—egregiously wrong—when he suggests that self-righteousness was not a problem in first-century Judaism.

Johnson is simply wrong—egregiously wrong—when he suggests that self-righteousness was a problem in first-century Judaism and maybe he should have read those scholars that Wright read instead of dismissing them.

By the way, Wright is making a caricature of the historic Protestant position when he suggests that most interpreters have equated first-century Judaism with Pelagianism, the notion that sinners can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and save themselves through their own works.

Just quoting this to say the irony of a caricature here is amazing.

Of course Judaism had a major emphasis on grace, and the mercy of God. The Pharisees knew the Old Testament, and the idea of grace was plainly prominent in the Old Testament. But the religion of the Pharisees, and the bulk of first-century Judaism, had corrupted the Old Testament notion of grace. Their religion wasn’t like Pelagianism, which is utterly devoid of grace. But it was much like semi-pelagianism, which has a watered-down notion of grace, and still places too much stress on human works. Semi-pelagianism suggests that grace is enough to get your foot in the door of salvation, but you have to maintain your salvation, or your covenant membership, by your own faithfulness and obedience to the law.

And Johnson bases this on….what? What scholarship on Second Temple Judaism is he reading to tell us that this is the way Jews thought? Your guess is as good as mine.

Listen, even in the way Tom Wright describes first-century Judaism, it is clear that there was a semi-pelagian tendency in that religion. And frankly, one of my great concerns with Wright and others who have followed his lead (as well as people like Norman Shepherd and the Auburn Avenue movement) is this: Their notion of “covenant faithfulness,” where a person maintains his membership in the covenant by legal means, through obedience, and looks for a final justification grounded at least partly in their own works—smacks too much of neonomian legalism for my tastes. It turns the gospel into a “new law”—a toned-down legal system where the requirements are diminished so that imperfect obedience counts as true obedience. And that makes the sinner’s own works either the ground or the instrument of final justification. That kind of thinking frankly has the stench of semi-pelagianism all over it. It is a subtle form of works-righteousness.

Except Johnson is reading his individualism into this. The Jew would not say I am doing the works of the Law so that I can be saved. They would say they are doing it because they are saved and this is what people of the covenant do. How do I know I am in the covenant? I fulfill my part of it! God is my patron! My role is to do what He has commanded me to do!

My reply is that if Wright is correct and the only issue Paul was concerned about was racial and cultural divisions in the Galatian churches and elsewhere, the force of Paul’s response is a little bit hard to understand. If Paul’s plea was merely an echo of Rodney-King theology (“Why can’t we all just get along?”) it’s hard to see why Paul himself pronounced such harsh anathemas against the Judaizers in Galatians 1. In effect, Paul banned them from the table Wright insists ought to be open to everyone who acknowledges Christ as Lord.

Actually, Paul’s response is pretty easy to understand. If the Galatians go the way they are doing, then Christ is useless because it’s being part of the community by the old standard as I said earlier. This is not about getting along. Again, Johnson has made, dare I say, a caricature, of the situation.

What about this third distinctive? Wright says we have mistaken what Paul meant by the expression “works of the law.”

Romans 3:20 alone blows that argument to smithereens. Paul says, “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”

It’s the moral law, not the ceremonial law, that puts our sin under a bright light and condemns us. Paul is not talking about ethnic badges here; he is talking about the moral demands of the law. And he is saying as plainly as possible that the law, with all its high moral standards, cannot possibly justify us, because it condemns us as sinners.

Romans 3:20 hardly blows it to smithereens. Johnson speaks about the moral law and not the ceremonial law, but we have to ask if a Jew would have made that distinction. Paul in fact in the passage that talks about the morality of those who follow the Law also talks about circumcision. Does Johnson think that circumcision is part of the moral law? Is a Gentile man immoral if he does not get circumcised?

Does the Law show what sin is? Yes. The Law then could not be the final basis for justification. It would have to be something else that would show someone is justified. That would be faith in Christ. Again, this is not a problem for Wright’s view. Johnson strikes me as someone who does not want to learn what his opponents believe. He’s quick to find something he thinks makes the case and then declares victory.

Wright’s definition of justification (as “covenant membership”) downplays and almost completely eliminates the ideas of sin and forgiveness from the doctrine of justification completely. But forgiveness and redemption from the guilt of sin are the very issues Paul is dealing with in Romans 3 and 4. And Paul’s illustrations and Old Testament proofs make it clear that what he is talking about is first of all individual, not corporate, justification. He is dealing with guilt, not merely covenant status. Romans 4:4–5: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to the one who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted [“reckoned”; “imputed to him”] for righteousness.”

Verses 6–7: “Just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered.”

There’s no way to be faithful to the meaning of that text if you try to evacuate the notions of individual guilt and forgiveness from the idea of justification.

No way? Challenge accepted!

In fact, it is quite easy to be faithful to the text. Why is Abraham cited? Abraham is exhibit A in all of these. Abraham was the friend of God. Abraham was the person God made an original covenant with. If Abraham was justified by works, then the Jews would have a case. What does the text say though? Abraham believed in God and it was credited to Him as righteousness. Abraham’s identity marker then was not circumcision. It was faith to the covenant. We today are declared righteous by faith in the covenant. The difference is we see the covenant afterward.

David says the same. There is no need for individualism here. Community minded people certainly know individuals exist. Their focus is just not on the individual. It is on the community. The group comes first and then the person comes second.

I could go on, but time is short. Let me just give you one other example, from the teaching of Jesus. That parable of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18 teaches the very thing N. T. Wright wants to deny about the doctrine of justification. This is the one place where Jesus expounds most clearly on the principle of justification. And he is fully in agreement with the classic Reformed interpretation of Paul. He ends that parable by saying in Luke 18:14: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

There you have the principle of justification apart from works of any kind. It deals with individual guilt and forgiveness, not merely corporate relationships. One man was justified; the other was condemned.

And this passage I also explained earlier. Each individual has to show how they are a part of the community, but the question is what establishes the community? Many of us are interested in what establishes the individual. The ancients were not.

But Scripture nonetheless does speak of the imputation of righteousness to the believer. Jesus commands us in Matthew 6:33 to “seek” God’s righteousness—a notion that doesn’t fit with the New Perspective definition. Ephesians 4:24 connects the notion of righteousness with “true holiness.” In other words, it is a extensive moral attribute, not merely “covenant faithfulness.” Any definition of righteousness that does not include those concepts is an impoverished definition.

But why not? This is again simple enough. Jesus’s point is that God will be faithful to His people. Seek that when seeking God. Remember His promises and trust Him. Ephesians is about our being faithful to the covenant on our end. Again, this is not a problem.

Righteousness is a much bigger concept than Tom Wright will acknowledge, and herein lies my chief complaint with his approach to theology: he has made righteousness a smaller concept than Scripture does. He makes sin a minor issue. He downplays the idea of atonement. He barely touches on the sinner’s need for forgiveness. He diminishes the doctrine of justification by declaring it a second-order doctrine. What he ends up with is a theology that is destitute of virtually all the lofty concepts that the Protestant Reformation recovered from the barrenness of Medieval theology.

Yes. Next we’ll be told that he kicks dogs when he walks across the street and takes candy from babies. Not at all. Johnson is pushing the panic button here. In fact, I think many on the other side diminish the resurrection by making it a second-order doctrine. Justification is a result of the resurrection. The resurrection is not the result of justification.

There is nothing in Wright’s perspective that downplays sin. Sin is the reason the Kingdom of God has to come on Earth. There is nothing that downplays forgiveness. One cannot enter the Kingdom without it. There is nothing that denies the atonement. One cannot be at peace with God without accepting His covenant.

From here we go on to a look at Steve Chalke and that this is where Wright is taking us. We will downplay sin and the atonement and everything else. If downplaying is the problem, then let me make a suggestion. Only twice in this article does Johnson mention the resurrection. When he does, he is talking about Wright’s defense of it. Nowhere in this piece does Johnson in any way tie justification to the resurrection.

Now if I was talking about justification, I would have to go to the resurrection. The cross is not what justifies us because if Jesus had remained dead, there would be no forgiveness. Jesus would have been just another sinner who died for His sins. It is because He rose from the dead that everything is different.

In fact, I’d go back even further. Too often when we give our talks about the Gospel, we start with Adam and Eve and then jump straight to Jesus. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that stuff in the middle that we call the Old Testament could be important. Just saying!

Like Johnson, I am not a prophet, but I do think I see where the wind is blowing here. We can expect that evangelicals will once again push the panic button when a new idea comes up and refuse to look at the claims and go into protection mode instead. Such is a disgrace for us. It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle it without debating it.

What do I encourage you to do? Do what should be done. Read both sides. If you think these secular scholars are just trying to undermine evangelicalism, read their work. See what they say. What is their claim? What is the data behind it? Does the data back the claim? Read Piper, but read Wright as well. Learn from all. Come to your own conclusion.

And let it be clear also I am not pronouncing any anathemas on those who disagree. I stand with any who proclaim that Jesus is the Lord of all who rose from the dead bodily. That is the essential for me. I don’t expect my theology to be right in everything. When my time for judgment comes, I will say that I placed my trust in Christ and that is all.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Day The Revolution Began

What do I think of N.T. Wright’s latest book published by HarperOne? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

N.T. Wright is one of my favorite authors to read. He is a deep thinker and he seems to have a vast knowledge of the Old and the New Testaments. There is also no isolation as he shows the interplay between the two very well. These are not facts just hanging in the air. These are part of a large and grand story. He makes me come to the Bible with fresh eyes seeing it incredibly different and leaves me with a greater love of the text.

This book is no exception. In it, he looks at the cross as the day the world changed. Of course, this wasn’t really known until the third day when Jesus rose, but the cross was something that changed the world. He also has a full-frontal attack on the idea that this is all just because Jesus died for our sins so we could be good people and go to Heaven. He does believe Jesus died for our sins. He does believe we should be good people. With Heaven, he holds, and I think rightfully, that God’s Kingdom is indeed to come on Earth and God is not going to destroy this world but rather to redeem it. The parts about dying for our sins and being good people is true, but it is missing a lot.

For Wright, the world was created and our vocation in it was to rule on behalf of God. When man failed, the task went to Israel to be a kingdom of priests for God to get all humanity back to where it needed to be. We know how that turned out. Israel needed to be rescued and redeemed often more than the people they were meant to rescue and redeem. God knew what to do. The Son, who has the very nature of God, came and died in order to redeem the world. Through death, He disarmed the power of sin and broke its hold over us. Through this, we were sent out then to be the people that we ought to be.

Wright then argues that our being good people in this world is not because we have a contract with God that He does something good for us and we do good back, but because our task now is to be those priests for a dying world. When we sin, it’s not just that we broke a rule that is out there. It is that we are violating our very being. We were meant to be holy and when we do something wrong, we give some power back to those powers that enslaved us and that Jesus came to break us free from.

We have too often read Paul and the Gospels with the idea that the Gospel is all about Jesus dying for our sins so we could go to Heaven. It can be as if this world doesn’t matter. It’s just an accident in the story. That’s also why so many of us having a hard time finding our place in this world. Yes. We’re meant to be good people, but to what end? We too often think “If we are good people, then others will ask us what makes us so different and then we tell them about Jesus so they can be good people too.” Unfortunately, this rarely happens, and second, it makes it so that we are the end result of all God does.

We are not the end of what God does. God is the end of what God does. His glory is supreme. When we live transformed lives and work to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven, then we are giving the glory to God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we establish a theocracy. That is not ours to do. It does mean that we live like Kingdom people knowing that while in many things, we submit to our governments, that when our governments contradict with God, we hold to the higher authority.

Wright’s book is engaging and scholarly and it leaves one with a greater appreciation of the New Testament text as well as a greater appreciation of holiness. It’s wonderful to go through a book like this and say “Hey. This makes sense.” All the ideas start clicking and falling into place. Our New Testament faith is not just ideas hanging in the air unrelated to Israel. They are entirely connected to Israel. We cannot give a full Gospel presentation without mentioning Israel and yet so many of us skip that part.

I really recommend you go through Wright’s latest book. It will leave you with a new way of looking at the cross and at your own life. I eagerly look forward to the next book by N.T. Wright.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

What do I think of Kathryn Applegate and J.B. Stump’s book published by IVP? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

When you see a title like this, your first inclination would probably be to think that this is a book by several ex-atheists who came to Christ and then as a result changed their minds on evolution. That’s a natural idea to think. Unfortunately, it’s dead wrong. In fact, this is about Christians who came to either believe in evolution or be open to it and saw no conflict with their Christian faith.

I find this interesting because I find myself in the category of people who are open. If you ask why I don’t come out and affirm, it’s because I don’t possess the scientific acumen to really examine the evidence. I also don’t possess the desire to spend years reading about it when my focus is elsewhere. How did I reach this conclusion?

It actually happened when I was studying at Southern Evangelical Seminary. I was writing a research paper on science and religion and thinking about the interplay between the two and how so many people so often claim that war is going on between the two. I also combined this with the Thomism that I had been learning about. I thought about the five ways and how those were valid ways of showing God exists long before the scientific arguments of our day came along such as the first two ways of William Lane Craig or of the Intelligent Design movement.

I started asking how much could I grant and still have Christianity? I realized it was quite a lot. My research got me to realize that if evolution is true, we have to accept it. We have no other choice. If something is true and if we believe the Bible is inerrant, it will not contradict the Bible. We might have to change our interpretation of the Scriptures.

I also thought about this because I had seen too many Christians, and sadly it was sometimes myself, critiquing evolution without understanding science. But wait, wasn’t it my concern that the new atheists were critiquing ideas without bothering to understand them? Ought I not be consistent? Now that being said, I am not opposed to Christians critiquing evolution. I just say that if you want to do it, make sure you build a case that is scientific. If evolution falls, let it fall because it is bad science. Let it never be the case that we make it the Bible vs. science. That damages the faith community and the scientific community both. (And atheists make the same mistake of such a dichotomy which I think leads to great ignorance on both the Bible and science.)

So enough about me, let’s get to the book. This book contains twenty-five accounts of people who accept evolution or are open and are committed Christians. I was very pleased to see N.T. Wright in here who wrote an essay on how this is a major issue in America, but not so much of one in the U.K.

Sometimes I thought the title was not as accurate. Some were Christians who never really had a problem with evolution. Some were, but not all. Can we really speak of them changing their mind on evolution?

Also, I understand that we should read more elsewhere to learn about evolution itself, but I would have liked to have seen more argumentation for evolution. Still, if you grant that at the most each author had about ten pages, I suppose I can see why it was lacking. Much of it was more autobiographical.

What I saw over and over was the need to really look at science and how science really can be a gateway to the glory of God. True, there are pastors and Biblical scholars in this book, but let us not think they are the only ones who are bringing the truth of God. The scientists can do it too. Sure, science won’t bring us the message of salvation by itself, but it does still help our lives here tremendously and explain the wonders of the God that the scholars and pastors reveal.

I realize there are some Christians who still struggle with this and I understand it. In fact, the editors of this book do and I’m sure most of the writers in the book do. Still, I always want to point to the foundation. If you found out evolution was true, would that refute for you the fact that Jesus rose from the dead? If it does, then you might not have a good apologetic for the resurrection to begin with. If Jesus rose from the dead, then how can evolution disprove that?

Could it also be that you believe in a God not with a certain nature but who works a certain way? We can still be made by God and formed over time. In fact, all of us are. From the time our parents have sex and conceive us, we spend nine months being formed and yet none of us thinks that that undermines our being made in the image of God.

I recommend that if you don’t know science, try to grant what can be established scientifically. If you do know and you think you can argue, make a case. If evolution is false like I said, it deserves to fall. Stick instead to your strengths ultimately. You don’t have to answer everything. The resurrection is the sure foundation. If you have that, you have Christianity. Christianity does not rest on old creation. It rests on new creation.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Got Questions On The New Perspective on Paul

Do we have a valid criticism of the New Perspective on Paul? (NPP) Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

A reader of the blog wanted to get my thoughts on an article he found online from Got Questions (GQ). He had been searching for information on the New Perspective on Paul and wanted to see what he could find. This one showed up on the first page and when I did my look, I got the same results. So let’s look at what the author of the piece has to say. Those wanting to read it can find it here. The question being asked is if the NPP is Biblical.

Any time a “new perspective” on some biblical doctrine arises, red flags should go off warning Christians of possible danger. In many cases such “new” ideas, teachings, or perspectives are not new at all. Rather, they are the same old lie from the Garden of Eden when Satan first cast doubt on God’s Word: “Did God really say…” (Genesis 3:1). In that sense, the “New Perspective on Paul” is ancient in that it tries to deny what the Scriptures clearly teach and what has been accepted by Christians for centuries. The “New Perspective on Paul” is not biblical and appears to be an attempt to redefine and even deny key biblical doctrines that are the foundation of the Christian faith.

Way to start off with both guns blazing! GQ didn’t even hesitate to start tying in the NPP with the lies of the devil. Why? Well first off, because it’s new. One can only imagine what they would have thought at the time of the Reformation. Would they have sided with Luther? Even if my readers aren’t Protestant here, it should be realized that GQ is not a Catholic ministry so they must answer this question. Would heliocentrism be considered a new perspective causing doubt on the Word of God? They do believe in the rapture. Are they not aware that historically that is a “new teaching”?

Anyway, to get back to the main point, we have already been told that the NPP is not Biblical and is an attempt to redefine core doctrines of the Christian faith. This is an interesting statement, but there’s one glaring problem. We haven’t even been told what the NPP is. We’re just told that whatever it is, it is like the ancient lie of the devil.

Sadly, however, the teachings propagated by the few who champion the “New Perspective on Paul” are gaining ground, even among evangelical churches, despite the fact that some of its leading proponents are liberal New Testament scholars from secular universities. Most well-known among the “New Perspective on Paul” proponents is N.T. Wright, a noted Bible scholar and Bishop in the Anglican Church, whose books seem to be influencing the spread of this troublesome teaching in evangelical churches.

Some of its proponents are liberal NT scholars who teach at secular universities like…..well…..we’re not told. N.T. Wright is the one mentioned here and he is hardly liberal. Wright wrote one of the leading books arguing that Jesus rose from the dead.

The heart of this teaching is that for hundreds, if not thousands, of years Christians have seriously “misunderstood” the apostle Paul and his teachings—thus the need for a new perspective on Paul. The idea that these latter-day scholars are so wise that they can figure out the correct perspective on Paul, when biblical scholars from the time of Christ on could not, is founded upon audacity and even borderline arrogance. The “New Perspective on Paul” is not unlike the Jesus Seminar group, who several years ago decided they could determine what Jesus actually said and did not say by voting on which words of Christ in the Bible should be attributed to Him and which should not. The implied arrogance of these types of “wiser than everyone else” attitudes should be clear when they claim that Christians for almost 2,000 years have been wrong about Paul.

Um. No. It’s not arrogance at all. It’s simply based on having new information that they did not have, including information found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There’s also this head in the sand approach that new ideas cannot possibly be true. We are learning more about the world of the Bible regularly. Archaeology and other disciplines are showing us things that had been lost for centuries. This is not arrogance. Arrogance is thinking that we will not uncover anything that could change our minds.

It’s also hideous to say that this is like the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar was a group of leftist NT scholars who approached the text with an assumption that miracles didn’t happen and didn’t consist of anyone from a European school. The NPP is not like that at all. GQ is just engaging in some guilt by association.

There are four basic tenets of “New Perspective on Paul.” First is the belief that Christians misunderstand Judaism of the first century. They say that Paul was not battling against Jews who were promoting a religion of self-righteousness and works-based salvation and that the Pharisees were not legalists. Yet the Bible describes the Pharisees as those who “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness,” “straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel,” and ones who “cleaned up the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:23–25). The view that first-century Pharisees were not legalists and their religion was not one of self-righteousness and works-based salvation directly contradicts Jesus’ own words in this and numerous other passages.

No it doesn’t. The idea is that the Pharisees did not keep the Law in order to attain righteousness. They kept it to demonstrate their righteousness. That can still work with self-righteous. The Pharisees thought they were righteous because they kept the Law, but Christ pointed out that it was all show. It would have been good for GQ to go and get Paul’s own perspective with the Law.

Philippians 3:4b-6.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

Paul would have said he kept the law flawlessly. He wasn’t living in a legalistic system where he was hoping everyday he could keep the Law. That’s the idea that has often come to us, but it’s simply a false one. In fact, the Reformers themselves would have been the first to say “Let’s look at this idea!” Their cry was “To the sources!” If this idea could be demonstrated from the sources, then let us go with it.

The second tenet of this false teaching is that Paul really did not have a problem with the doctrine of salvation taught by the Jewish leaders of his day. His disagreement with them was simply over how they treated the Gentiles and not a fundamental difference over how one is saved or justified before a holy God. However, in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans, Paul clearly and solidly condemned the works-based system of righteousness promoted by the Judaizers who were trying to lure the Galatians away from the true gospel message. In fact, he said that anyone who preached a gospel other than the one he preached should be “eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:8–9). Once again, Scripture shows that the “New Perspective on Paul” is not based on the testimony of Scripture but instead is contrary to it, making it an unbiblical teaching with serious consequences for those who follow it and are led astray by it.

No. Once again, GQ is assuming their stance and pushing it onto the Bible. The question of Galatians is “How do you show you are a part of the family of God?” The answer of the Judaizers was “Keeping the Law.” The answer of Paul was “Faith in Christ.” Paul would have indeed said you could not be righteous by keeping the Law. You can only be righteous by having faith in Christ. The NPP would not disagree with that.

The third unbiblical tenet of the “New Perspective on Paul” teaching is that the gospel is about the Lordship of Christ and not a message of personal salvation and individual redemption from the condemnation of sin. Certainly, the Lordship of Christ is an important part of the gospel truth, but, if that is all it is, how is that good news? No one can make Christ Lord of his life without first being cleansed of sin and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit of God can empower us to yield to the lordship of Christ. Clearly the hope of Christians is that Christ is first and foremost a Savior whose atoning sacrifice has personally and completely made atonement for their sins. It is for this reason that the gospel is the good news, because “it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

The NPP is right on this and what GQ misses is that salvation is the result of this. Since Christ is Lord, He is able to pronounce forgiveness and judgment. It’s a shame that GQ asks “How is this good news?” How is it not? One does not say “Jesus is Lord and that’s all.” It’s “Jesus is Lord and that changes everything.” The NPP is certainly right that we have individualized the Gospel and started it with ourselves instead of Christ as Lord. Again, nothing else said here about the Holy Spirit would be problematic to the NPP.

This leaves us with the fourth and the most serious unbiblical tenet of the “New Perspective on Paul” teaching—the denial of the doctrine of justification by faith, a central and non-negotiable Christian doctrine. According to proponents of this unbiblical teaching, when Paul wrote about justification, he was not speaking of personal and individual justification whereby a guilty sinner is declared righteous on the basis of his faith in Christ and Christ’s righteousness being imputed to the sinner. Instead, they claim, when Paul wrote about justification, he was speaking of how one could tell if a person was “a member of the covenant family.”

And the problem? One is welcomed into the covenant family on the basis of faith and not the works of the Law. How is that a denial of being justified by faith? Salvation still works out the same way. At this point, I can’t help but think of how someone once asked me to watch a video with Al Mohler hosting a group of Christians, whether scholars or not I couldn’t tell, on N.T. Wright’s view and if he was going against the Reformation. One person actually said “N.T. Wright may think he’s found something new in the Scriptures, but he’s going against the tradition.” I nearly fell out of my chair hearing that.

Wasn’t that kind of what the Reformation was all about? Going against tradition because of something found in the Scriptures? Why would the Reformers be opposed to this then?

According to N.T. Wright, “Justification in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was in fact, a member of his people.” The problem with this tenet of the “New Perspective on Paul” is that it distorts the biblical teaching on justification by faith and instead teaches that Paul’s doctrine of justification was only concerned with the Gentiles’ standing in the covenant community and not at all about a guilty sinner being declared just before a holy and righteous God. Simply put, we cannot disregard or redefine justification and still be considered Christian or biblical. In his writings, N.T. Wright often argues against the imputed righteousness of Christ, which is the heart and soul of the true gospel (2 Corinthians 5:21).

It would have been nice to have seen something from N.T. Wright on this. We have a quote, but who knows where it comes from? Instead, GQ puts up a straw man saying Paul was only concerned about Gentiles. No. Paul was a preacher of one Gospel. After all, Paul counted his keeping of the law rubbish when compared to Christ. It’s a shame also that GQ says Wright argues against the imputed righteousness of Christ, which is the heart and soul of the true gospel.

I could have sworn the heart and soul was Jesus Christ died, buried, and resurrected again. Could it be GQ here is actually demonstrating the point about individualizing the Gospel? They’ve said the start of the Gospel is the news about themselves. It’s not. It’s the news about Jesus.

Just as Satan called into question the Word of God to Eve, the “New Perspective on Paul” calls into question the basic doctrines of the Christian faith as revealed by the Bible and, because of this, the “New Perspective on Paul” should be rejected.

It would have been good to have seen this demonstrated, but instead, we have a head-in-the-sand approach that says “New idea! Must not be investigated!” And apparently, they didn’t. You do not find all these other scholars quoted and only one attempt at a quotation from Wright that does not even have a source. It’s because of this, that I think GQ should be rejected on this. Now it could be the NPP is not true and should be rejected, but it is better to debate a matter without settling it than to settle a matter without debating it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

Book Plunge: The Challenge of Jesus

What do I think of N.T. Wright’s book published by IVP? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Most readers know that I thoroughly adore the works of N.T. Wright. Give me a Wright book and it normally moves right to the top of my reading list. How can you not enjoy the works of N.T. Wright? Wright has a great gift in that he takes the serious study of the academy and then he brings it to the church in a way that a layman can understand. In all of this, he does not sacrifice an inch on orthodoxy, while maintaining a devotion that will encourage readers to look at Jesus in a whole new light and consider seriously what he says, which is of course, the Challenge of Jesus.

This is a book that was written earlier and then redone for us today. It is indeed one that needs to be redone as the world has changed since the last writing of the book and we need to be reminded anew of the challenge of Jesus. Wright begins with explaining why studying the historical Jesus matters and there are two groups that would say it is pointless. The first would include hyper-skeptics who view history negatively and think that we cannot really know anything about the historical Jesus. On the extreme in this case would be people who say we don’t even know that He existed. Surprisingly on the other end are Christians. These would be the attitude of “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Why do we need to study Jesus this way? We have the Word of God here. It tells us everything we need to know.” I would agree with Wright that this is not a wise position. We have learned more about Judaism, and especially Second Temple Judaism, in the past few years and we should seek to put that to use.

I definitely agree with Wright that studying the historical Jesus should be a part of Christian discipleship. We should be wrestling with the question of what the historical Jesus thought and what He was trying to say to His contemporaries. Might we have to sacrifice some beliefs that we think are just obviously what Jesus was saying along the way? Of course. We might. But if we are interested in living as Jesus would have us to live, would that not entail that we should have as many accurate beliefs about Jesus as we possibly could? We should not be afraid of having any belief challenged in our study of the historical Jesus if our goal is truth.

Next is the challenge of the Kingdom and this is also one that is neglected. Jesus spoke so much about the Kingdom of God and today, we say hardly anything about it. People treat the Earth as if it’s a sort of temporary holding spot until God just does away with everything and makes things new. The Gospel is about God becoming King of this world through the work of Jesus. As I write this, I think about a cousin of mine who is a minister who put on his Facebook about the importance of following Jesus. I was pleased to see this and commented that we need to ask why do we follow Jesus? Could anyone give a reason?

No one answered.

How is it that we are go to the unbeliever and tell them that Jesus is the King of this world and that we should follow Him, if we cannot even say why we follow Him ourselves? Do we follow Him because He rose from the dead? Then should we have become followers of Lazarus as well? Do we follow Him because He claimed to be God? Then should we not follow numerous cultists who claim the same? How about following Him because He claimed to be who He said He was and then God raised Him from the dead to vindicate those claims. Of course, to do that, we might actually need to do something shocking, like study Jesus.

Once we learn about Him more, we can see that He is indeed the King of this world and then we can answer the question of why we follow Him. We do not follow Him because we like His teachings, though we might, or because He rose from the dead, though He did, but we follow Him because He claimed to be God’s agent to bring about His kingdom on this Earth and He demonstrated that by being raised from the dead by God. We follow Him because He has shown that He is Lord and Caesar is not and the same applies to all who would like to take on the title of Caesar today. Jesus is the true King of this world.

But what about crucifixion? Yes. Why did that happen? Wright argues that Jesus was taking on the punishment of Israel on behalf of Israel. He was taking on the enemy not with the sword but with surrender. He was the one who did not resist the chastisement of God, but He took on Himself that which He did not deserve. The crucifixion would have normally spelled the death knell of the movement, but it did not. This indeed gets us to the resurrection. Wright does think this can be defended historically, which I agree, and that anyone arguing against it needs a better explanation of why the movement went the way that it did. Because of both of these together, we see that God has acted in Jesus to bring about His kingdom.

Finally, the rest is about how we can be salt and light in our own world. What does what happened 2,000 years ago have to do with today? The answer is the Challenge of Jesus is still just as relevant as we are to be Jesus to our new postmodern world.

Reading Wright is always a blessing. He not only gives me more knowledge, but he encourages me to live a better life and in fact, brings me to the Scriptures anew with looking and thinking about the historical Jesus and what He did and said in His own time. May the works of Wright continue to have their great audience and when the church takes him and those like him as seriously as they take people like John Hagee and Joel Osteen, it will be a much better day for the church.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Lost World of Adam and Eve

What do I think of John Walton’s book published by IVP? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

AdamandEve

First off, I wish to thank IVP and John Walton both for this. IVP sent me an advanced copy and John Walton and I have interacted on the book. I consider him a friend and I thank him for his care in discussing these matters with me.

The Lost World of Genesis One was a book that I considered to be revolutionary. It’s the kind of study of Genesis One that I hope will keep going onward. In fact, nowadays, whenever someone asks me about the age of the Earth, I just tell them to read John Walton. For a long time I had been wondering if I had been reading the first chapter of Genesis wrong and trying to think of how it is that an ancient Israelite would have read it. John Walton’s book provided the answer. I was simply thrilled to hear that he had a sequel to the book coming out in the Lost World of Adam and Eve. (Although he tells me that at this point, there are no plans for a Lost World of Noah, but who knows how that could change in the future.)

So in this book, we have a focus largely on Genesis 2-3 and it is meant to address a lot of the questions that come up later, such as where did Cain get his wife? In this book, Walton continues the line he was going down in his previous book and emphasizes the account is not about material creation but it is still about what he prefers to call sacred space. In the past, he had used an analogy of a temple, but sacred space is the path he’s going now, although we could certainly say that all temples are deemed to be sacred spaces, not all sacred spaces are temples.

In Walton’s view, Adam is not so much the first man as he is the archetype. This means that Adam was meant to be the one who would represent humanity. This makes sense since if we want to say it’s a chronological thing and Adam is the first Adam, then what are we to make of Jesus being the last Adam? Chronologically, Jesus is definitely not the last man to have ever lived. Everyone reading this post was born after the time of Jesus. From the position of an archetype, Jesus is the last one. Just as Adam was our representative in the garden, when we get to the New Testament, Jesus is seen as our representative.

Thus, the text would not be seen as having a problem with other people. It’s just that those people are not the subject of the account. If that is the case, then the question of where Cain got his wife is answered. Cain married one of those other humans. It was just that Adam was the chosen representative and he brought the knowledge of sin to the world by his wrong actions. Walton is open to the possibility of there being sin beforehand, but people did not have a law that they were accountable to. When Adam fell, then people had something that they were accountable to and sin had to be dealt with.

Eve in the account meanwhile is made to be an ontological equal. She is not really made from the rib of Adam but from the side. Walton says the language is used of a deep sleep for a trance like purpose. We should not read modern anesthesia into the account. The Israelites were not scientists and God could have just as easily made Adam impervious to any pain. Instead, what it is is that Adam is having a vision of himself being cut in half by God and from that half Eve being made. Thus, quite literally, when Eve shows up, Adam can happily proclaim that he’s found his better half. (To which, I have consulted a number of Hebrew scholars who tell me that the bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh that Adam said when he saw Eve is more appropriately translated as “YOWZA!”)

But what was Adam to be doing in the garden? Adam was to act as a priest. In essence, he was to do what Jesus came to do also according to Hebrews. Unfortunately, as our priest, he failed. Adam was meant to bring order to a world that had non-order in it and even some agents of disorder wandering around, chaos creatures as Walton calls them. This would include the serpent, and while whatever the nature of the serpent was is unclear still, it represents a creature that is opposed to the plan of God and thus a threat. It’s also interesting that Walton points out we are not told where the encounter took place. We just think it was in the garden.

As for the tree, Walton says there was nothing magical in the fruit of the tree and that it could have just as easily been a command to not walk on the beach at night. The question was simply is man going to be faithful to God or not. Man gets to choose. One can easily think of C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra at this point. Walton also argues that Adam and Eve were not created immortal, to which I was certainly thrilled to see that as that was a point that I concluded years ago. After all, if they were immortal, why would they need the fruit in the garden, especially the tree of life, to sustain them at all?

Another bonus in the book is that Walton has an excursus by N.T. Wright on Paul’s view of Adam. It’s hard to think of something more thrilling in academia than to see John Walton and N.T. Wright working together on a project. Walton’s view in fact falls in incredibly well with Wright’s, which is one reason I think it’s simply such an amazing interpretation. It fits in with the whole role of vocation and how we are all now in the place of Adam in the sense that our vocation has not changed from the garden. We are still to rule over the Earth and to take control. That having been said, Walton is clear we are not to misuse what we have been given. None of this belongs to us by nature. It is all God’s. We are just the caretakers of what He has given us.

Along with all of this comes the point that science is no threat to Christianity. Studies in modern genetics are not a threat. Evolutionary theory is not a threat. There’s no doubt that at times science can inform our interpretation. For instance, it would be wrong to interpret Psalm 104:5 in a geocentric way and to have read it that way in the past was a misreading as if the Psalmist was interested in telling us about the relation of the planet to the sun. We definitely need to avoid anything such as science vs. the Bible. If a theory like evolutionary theory is to fall, let it fall for one reason. It proves to be bad science. All truth is God’s truth after all and that includes scientific truths. If we want to know the purpose of our existence, we look to the book of Scripture. If we want to know the how of our existence, we look to the book of nature. It is true in a sense that we can say of everything that is that God did it, but Scripture is not meant to answer the question how. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter and the glory of man to search it out. Let’s benefit from both the book of nature and the book of Scripture.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Case For The Psalms

Do Christians today really need the Psalms? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

As readers of this blog know, N.T. Wright’s work is just gold to me. N.T. Wright brings so much life to the biblical text by sharing the historical context making it a deeper and deeper work to be appreciated. In fact, Wright was a major influence in getting me to switch my major to NT.

Yet in his book “The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential”, Wright turns to this important OT book, a book I honestly rarely see scholars engaging with, except for how it relates to the NT. Wright does some of that, but he also brings out the importance of it on its own.

The Psalms we must remember were the hymns of the early church and the first Christians. They were before Christ, the embodiment of the hope of Israel. They longed for what it is we all longed for and what was ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Of course, this is not to say that new songs should not be written. Indeed, they should be. Yet so many of our songs lack the rich depth that can be found in the Psalms. How many of the songs we sing in church today really usher us into the amazement of knowing God in Christ? I can say that one that certainly does it for me today is “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Whenever I hear that song, I simply have to sit down. I can’t stand and sing that song. I am humbled every time I hear it with the recognition that God is holy and without Him, I am not. With my interest in theology also, I am deeply appreciative that a song says “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

Perhaps our songs could learn something from the Psalms with the Psalms being the archetype that we all draw from when it comes to writing new songs today. These songs should embody our hopes that the Psalms themselves embodied. Wright goes into three areas.

First, the Psalms all hoped that God would redeem time. Many a Psalm points back to events when the God of Israel acted in the past in order to bring about a people. The reason of course was so that God could bring about a great future and that future had not yet come. Thus, the Israelites were living with a hope for the future and that hope was in the present unrealized.

Many of us today can still pray “How long O Lord? How long?” Yet the Psalmists were in many ways saying the exact same prayer and their stark honesty is refreshing. At times, the Psalmist chooses to point the finger not at fallen humanity or the devil or forces of evil, but at God Himself. Why is God doing or not doing something? The Psalms would be a way of saying to God the promises He had made and looking with the hopeful future trust if not present trust that He would bring them about.

Second, the Psalms hoped that God would redeem space. The land of Israel was the sacred land to the people. Yet at times they had been removed from the land and when they returned, they were still in exile as a foreign power was in charge.

Not only that, where did God exactly dwell? That was a question. God had made His presence known in the Temple? Where was He when the temple was not there? How they longed for it! This is of course fulfilled in the NT when we have the living temple of Jesus come and then we read in 1 Corinthians that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, they longed for God to redeem matter. It is a gnostic view that this world is evil. Christianity says the world is good, but something has gone wrong with this good world. We can often get at the environmentalist movement for worshiping the creation seemingly, and some do, but we should not lose sight that this creation is the creation of God and it is good and He has a purpose for it.

All these three are still often our hopes and a work like this has taught me I need to go back and reread the Psalms and see the hope of Israel in them. It is not only myself but all of us who do. We need to look at the Psalms and ask why each Psalm was written and what was the purpose and notice the nuances of the beautiful poetry therein.

So once again, I am in debt to N.T. Wright for helping me to look at a portion of Scripture afresh. I am never disappointed by a work of Wright. May he write many more works and may God bless us with more scholars of the heart and caliber of N.T. Wright.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Resurrection of Jesus

What do I think about Crossan and Wright in dialogue? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

In “The Resurrection of Jesus”, a dialogue takes place between N.T. Wright and John Dominic Crossan on the resurrection with several essays following by noted scholars on the subject. I wish to focus my main part of the review on the dialogue between Crossan and Wright.

As readers of the blog know, I have a strong bias with N.T. Wright. I am a fan of his series and try to read anything he wrote and listen to any podcast that he is on. If I am ever given a chance to review an N.T. Wright book, I take it immediately. Thus, I not only get to review a great book, but add one to my collection.

Naturally then, I thought Wright was stellar, but my problem with the debate is that it had little to say about history from what I saw. Crossan takes a quite postmodern approach and wants to discuss interpretations rather than what really happened. Trying to have the dialogue take place then is akin to trying to nail jell-o to the wall.

Yet Crossan’s whole position is problematic. It is as if it doesn’t matter at all if Jesus literally arose or metaphorically arose. We’re all still Christians and we have to get about the work of the Kingdom! I’m not ready to jump on board. If Jesus died the death of a wicked blasphemer and I have no reason to believe He was vindicated, then why should I waste my life following Him?

On the other hand, if Jesus was resurrected, this means just more than that a dead guy came to life again. As Wright says, if the thief next to Jesus had been resurrected, it would have been considered a strange world. No one would go out and immediately proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.

The resurrection of Jesus would then mean that our real material world and all that is in fact immaterial is on the path to restoration. God is building His Kingdom right now and we are the ones that are at work. Eventually, death itself will be obliterated. The story cannot work both ways. Either death has the final say on Jesus, or Jesus has the final say on death.

Crossan’s approach should be a reminder to Christians that we need more than history. We need to have a whole interpretive grid into which to fit the resurrection and to show what a difference it makes. We are becoming a more and more postmodern society in America with everyone’s view being seen as just as good as anyone else’s. (Except those darn evangelical Christians.)

We also need to firmly set up what is and isn’t a Christian. Crossan wants to include himself. If we do not think he is one, why not? If we say the physical resurrection of Jesus, then we have to ask why is that a clincher? Why does it matter?

As I have said many times before, Christians need more than just knowing how to establish the resurrection. They need to be able to show what a difference it makes and how it fits into their worldview beyond “Christianity is true.”

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Who Was Jesus?

Is Wright right and Spong wrong? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I am an avid fan of N.T. Wright and try to read absolutely anything that he writes. My latest read of his came from reading “Fabricating Jesus” where Evans dispenses with people like Barbara Thiering yet says N.T. Wright has written a response to her in “Who Was Jesus?”

That’s enough to get me looking for that on my next library visit!

Thiering is not Wright’s only target. Wright has other chapters on A.N. Wilson and John Shelby Spong.

It’s hard to read this book without thinking that seeing N.T. Wright go after these guys is like watching a tank be used to squish an ant.

Wright’s book starts off with a brief summary of Jesus studies to this point, largely by looking at what Schweitzer did. He goes on from there to say where the studies have led us and then brings out Thiering, Wilson, and Spong as examples of how not to do these kinds of studies, all the while still commending some good points that can be found in them.

Reading Thiering, it’s a wonder how such a work as hers got published. Thiering’s idea is that practically everything in the gospels is code and the way to understand the code is by looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls. As Wright points out, Thiering is quick to dispense with her idea of a code whenever it is convenient for her to do so. Based on her reading, Thiering has dates on when Jesus escaped death, married Mary Magdalene, later left her and married Lydia of Philippi, (Seriously. I’m not kidding), and eventually died.

Yes. Wright takes the time to dispense with such a bizarre theory as this. One cannot help but imagine the reaction these three authors might have had knowing who was critiquing their work.

A.N. Wilson comes from another angle. For Wilson, Jesus was a Galilean holy man, but Paul came along and messed everything up! Wilson does have more right than Thiering (Granted, not much of an accomplishment), but there is still too much that is wrong. Wilson does not interact with the latest of scholarship on the issue and gives the impression of being stuck in works from the 1960’s. Amazingly, some parts of his writing are quite accurate and had I not known they were from him, I would have thought they were from a conservative Christian.

One of Wilson’s great weaknesses is his idea about seeking unbiased sources. As Wright points out, they don’t exist. Everyone wrote with a motive. No one is neutral on the Jesus question and it is a mistake to think anyone is. Yet as Wright has said elsewhere, even if the sportscaster has a bias for which team he thinks is the best and wants to win, that doesn’t mean you must doubt the score he reports.

Furthermore, if we wanted an unbiased work, it would not be Wilson who makes it clear he has a hammer to use against anything that is religious. As usual, it is the ones who are claiming the most to have no bias who in fact do have the most bias.

Finally, we come to Spong, who has a hang-up over the virgin birth. Wright is just perplexed, as am I, over the idea that Spong has that we today know better. As Wright points out, they might not have known as many details about sex as we do, but they certainly knew what it took to make a baby. That’s why Joseph sought to divorce Mary at first. He knew what it took to make a baby, and he knew he hadn’t done it.

Spong also has a vendetta against literalism, which I can understand, but yet praises the Reformation and goes against the ECF. Yet it was the ECF who were more pron to going with an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures and the Reformers who wanted to return more to a literal interpretation.

Spong also includes a comment about what Midrash is, an account that Wright thinks is nonsense, and that scholars of Midrash would disagree with. Like the other writers, Spong can sound impressive on paper and the notes and bibliography of the books Wright comments on can make them seem scholarly, but it is only a veneer. The real heart of the works is anything but.

As with any Wright work, I do recommend this one. Wright gives an excellent example of how to deal with so much misinformation in the popular culture. It is a shame more people will read Thiering, Wilson, and Spong, but never get around to Wright. I am thankful for Wright and thankful indeed that Wright is right and Spong is wrong.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

The Resurrection and Joy

Do we have reason to rejoice? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

We’ve been looking at the resurrection lately and what a difference it makes for the Christian. For tonight, I think of what N.T. Wright has said about comparing Judaism of the day before Christ to the time of Christianity. The Jews lived in a time of hope. It was the question of if God was going to come and bring about the promises that He said He would do. Would God conquer their enemies? Would God rescue His people? When would God fulfill His end of the covenant?

Nothing wrong with that of course. In the time before Christianity, one could have joy of being a member of the community of God, but it still was looking forward to something important. One was still in bondage. As we know from John 8, Christ did come to set us free and that was what we had really been waiting for. Christ did not come for a patch of land. He did not come for one group of people. He came first of all for God. He came to do the will of the Father. He came second for the world. He was not interested in a land but the planet. He was not interested in a group of people but every tribe and nation.

That hasn’t changed.

Now the Jews and their land was the means to that. For the Jews, everything revolved around the Temple. Consider it if you will a gateway between Heaven and Earth. This is the best analogy I can think of, but some of us who grew up in the gaming sphere know about a scene where someone enters a place like a temple and ends up finding a gateway that leads to the place where the really good being or the really evil being lives. It is the idea that there are two worlds and this one place is the connection point between both worlds.

I want to be sure that you know I am not saying God lives in another dimension as it were and that that place is physical. I do not think that as God is not physical. I am saying that there was a place that He did make His presence known especially for the Jews and that was in the temple. As long as the temple was there, YHWH was there. God did not reveal Himself to everyone but made a plan to reveal Himself to everyone starting with a particular people in a particlar place.

For we Christians, this hope has been fulfilled and it was fulfilled in Christ. Now our lives are to be dominated by joy. I plan to get into this more in future blogs but let’s consider some points. First off, we have the ultimate reversal. When Christ resurrects, what happens is that death itself starts to work backwards. Christ is the first one to experience this but we are told that not only we, but all of creation will experience that resurrection. (There is nothing conclusive about animals in the new world, but the thought of something like this would be one of my main inclinations to think that God will redeem the animal life of His creation as well.)

Second, we have been set free. The Jews wondered when they would be set free from Rome, but their goals were too small. God was not coming to set them free from Rome but to set them free from sin. The problem is we Christians often make the same mistake. It is not that our wishes for our lives are too great for God to fulfill. They are often way too small. In Luke 12:32, we are told that God has given us the Kingdom for instance. It is quite amazing how much we ask for forgetting we have the Kingdom. We think that God does not give us anything when in reality, He has given us everything, namely Himself. What more can He give?

Finally, this means that we are forgiven. This is something else I will expound on later and I thank a good Christian friend for pointing this out to me in a similar sermon he did on the resurrection. It had the interesting thought experiment in it of imagining what it would be like to live in a world without forgiveness. None of us would want to live in that world, but to an extent, we all act like we do, though we don’t do so as seriously. We think of some sin that is so heinous to us that we cannot imagine that God would ever forgive it, all the while going through our lives committing X number of sins regularly that are smaller sins but still thinking “It’s no big deal.” If there is no forgiveness, there is no sin that is “No big deal.” If there is forgiveness, every sin is also in its own way a big deal when you consider the price that it took to grant that forgiveness. In the first world, we say mercy is not great enough. In the second, we try to say our sin is not great enough.

Consider this then as an entryway into a subset on the resurrection at this point and how the resurrection leads to Christian joy. I hope you’ll continue coming along. Also, for those interested, I am looking into upgrading the blog site talking to some people who know a lot more about this than I. I already know about the issue with the date of the blog entries. Feel free to let me know about anything else you’d like addressed.

In Christ,
Nick Peters