Conference On The New Perspective on Paul
A conference on justification was arranged by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Christian Education Committee of the Presbytery of the Midwest on March 17 in Des Moines, Indiana, USA. The handout of the Committee stated that some voices were calling for a “new perspective on Paul” because the Reformed Church had misunderstood what Paul said about justification, and that others were demanding a “Federal Vision” to correct the subjectivism and individualism of the modern church. Over 100 people attended the conference.
There were two speakers, Professor David VanDrunen, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster theological Seminary in Escondido, California, and Professor Alan Strange Associate Professor of Church History and Theological Librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, in Dyer, Indiana
VanDrunen’s critique of the New perspective addressed five main areas: the Jewish background, the “works of the Law,” the demand for perfect obedience to the law, the “righteousness of God,” and the nature of justification.
VanDrunen believes that NPP proponents “oversimplify” the Jewish background. He also pointed out from scripture that “the works of the law” cannot be reduced to a “subset or boundary markers.” He demonstrated that if the law of God does not require perfect obedience, then there is no need for Christ’s active obedience. Drawing on several passages of scripture, VanDrunen showed that “God requires sacrifice; He demands obedience.”
Regarding the “righteousness of God,” VanDrunen emphasized scriptural teaching that it is “imputed” to us apart from works and depends on the obedience of Christ. He said that those within the NPP deny the forensic or judicial aspect of justification. They do not speak about it as a definitive act, but rather as progressive or future. This has important implications for the believer’s peace.
“Justification is not simply a theological topic,” he concluded, “but one with the most important consequences for God’s people.”
Prof. Alan Strange mentioned the Auburn Avenue conference in January of 2002 as a recent event that gave impetus to what has become known as the “Federal Vision.”
“No small dispute erupted in the wake of that conference,” he said. He listed several problems of the Federal Vision, among which were: denial of the covenant of works, blurring of the gospel/law distinction, rejection of the visible/invisible church distinction, and sacramentalism. He called the Federal Vision “sharply at odds” with classical federal theology.
He also spoke about the Knox Colloquium held in 2003 and hosted by Cal Beisner, which permitted some Auburn Avenue participants and their critics to interact. Strange additionally mentioned Norman Shepherd’s belief that the Heidelberg Catechism does not teach the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.
Prof. Strange then explained that Federal Vision thinking has been developing for some time, and some proponents claim to be returning to the Reformers. “But you can’t pit Calvin against the Westminster Standards,” he said.
He mentioned Herman Hoeksema’s view of “the decree of God” and Klaas Schilder’s view of “election from the perspective of the covenant” as influential in Federal Vision thought.
Strange admits that the Federal Vision raises some legitimate questions – especially with regard to the means of grace and the visible church – and is concerned about the “morbid introspection” it sees within the Reformed community. But he sees the Federal Vision as presenting a “different theological schema.”
“Justification and sanctification are to be distinguished,” he said, “not rent asunder.”
He especially decries the “eternal covenant” belief, which teaches that the relationship among the persons of the Trinity entails covenant. Strange believes there is a “paucity” of scriptural support for describing the Trinity as covenantal. Strange further believes that linking that covenant of God with the covenant into which we are brought “effectively denies the covenant of grace or the covenant of works” and “flattens out” God’s covenantal dealings with man.
“Christ did what Adam could not do,” he said.
He believes some Federal Vision proponents teach faith “into which works have been imported.”
He countered, “We say it is about the sufficiency of Christ.”
Christian Renewal, April 13, with permission.
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