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The New Perspective On Paul And Other Errors

Category Articles
Date March 21, 2006

One of the duties of the Christian minister is to warn and prepare the people for new ideas about the Gospel, which are erroneous. Novel ideas are always pouring out of the mind of fallen man and in recent times there have been several new theories on which we need to keep a watchful eye as they are not what our fathers have taught from God’s Word. In this brief article we look at three, but we can only give notes on the issues at stake and suggest further reading to those who wish to follow up what we give here.

1. The ‘New Perspective’ on Paul

Dr Tom Wright, now Bishop of Durham, following the line of thought introduced by E P Sanders in his book Paul and Palestinian Judaism has in recent years given a new meaning to the concept of justification. The emphasis in justification, says Dr Wright, falls not on God’s judicial pronouncement that a sinner by faith in Christ is deemed to be righteous. It is not, as our Reformed and Protestant catechisms have always taught, that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner at the moment of his believing in Christ. Rather, justification is, according to Wright and others who hold to this ‘New Perspective’, to be viewed as ‘covenant community status’. This is more ominous than it might sound. Wright can say:

‘This declaration (i.e. justification) is in turn closely correlated with baptism, in which one becomes a member of that family in its historical life’.

But while baptism brings a person into the visible church it does not necessarily make him a child of God in a spiritual sense. It is, in our view, dangerous talk to suggest that baptism has power to place anyone, in a spiritual and eternally-saving way, into the covenant community of God. This is the highway to ritualism and formalism, surely.

Other ‘New Perspective’ writers of prominence include Professor James Dunn and Dr Alister McGrath, the former a Presbyterian and the latter an Anglican. A justified person, according to the teaching of the ‘New Perspective’ writers, is re-defined as one who is in the membership of God’s covenant people. Put briefly it is this: The sinner gets into God’s covenant by faith; but he stays in it by his good works. The term ‘righteousness’ in the thinking of Wright, means something different from what our catechisms have taught us to think. A sinner, he says, is righteous when he is in the membership of the covenant. He thinks that Luther’s way of putting it was in some ways ‘misleading.’

Luther understood righteousness to mean that a person is in a right personal relationship with God through the imputation to him of Christ’s righteousness. To lack this righteousness, Luther taught, is to be under the wrath and curse of God. This is why that great German Reformer was so terrified till he got a clear understanding of the Gospel way of salvation. What brought him peace and profound assurance was the realisation that the righteousness which the gospel refers to is not what God requires the sinner to do but what He Himself provides as a free gift to all who believe in Jesus.

The ‘New Perspective’ way of understanding Paul’s stern criticisms of the legalists (see Romans and Galatians) is to suppose Paul to be challenging them for preaching a ‘national righteousness’ – something for Jews only. Paul, it is now argued, is not here arguing against self-righteousness at all, as our Reformed writers previously thought.

There is a new way of thinking about salvation as a whole in the way the ‘New Perspective’ writers are now expounding the New Testament. For example, James Dunn, professor of divinity at Durham University, considers the Damascus Road experience of Paul, not as his conversion, but as a commissioning to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. But Paul himself did not so regard it. Paul understood Christ to be defining his experience as a ‘washing away of his sins’ (Acts 22:16).

There are also very serious ecumenical implications attached to these new views. Alister McGrath, an expert in historical theology, and a ‘New Perspective’ writer, is of the opinion that the doctrine of justification should be given a wider meaning than the one found in the Bible. He would distinguish between the idea of justification as found in Paul and the doctrine of justification as taught in the church. He views justification in terms of man’s relationship with God as a whole and not just as the one act by which God imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believing sinner. He can say: ‘In justification God offers to dwell within us as his temple.’

Such teaching however is foreign to the Reformers and is far different from Paul’s teaching on justification and that of the New Testament as a whole. As Philip Eveson points out in regard to McGrath’s teaching: ‘McGrath’s definition of justification using transformational language reminds us of Rome’s position.’ It is highly to be regretted that Dr McGrath’s view of justification is a step towards the Roman Catholic teaching. We remind ourselves that Luther’s position was that justification is the ‘article of a standing or else a falling church.’ To this position we must adhere with all our might.

It is very clear that Wright, Dunn, McGrath and others are theological revisionists. The place given to human works is quite wrong.

For further reading on the ‘New Perspective’ teaching as a whole we strongly recommend The Great Exchange by Philip H Eveson, (Day One).

2. ‘New Covenant Theology’

This is a recent movement mainly among Reformed Baptists. One of its leaders is John Reisinger, brother of the late Ernest Reisinger. Happily, Ernest Reisinger was a strong contender for the view that the Moral Law is the rule of life for the Christian believer. However his brother John holds to the opposite position.

Among the views taught by the New Covenant Baptist writers are the following:

(1)The Ten Commandments are the old covenant made with Israel at Sinai.
(2)The view that O T laws can be divided into moral, ceremonial and judicial is wrong. John Reisinger writes: ‘Everything that God commands is “moral law” to the individual commanded’.
(3)The Decalogue is not a rule of life for Christians in the covenant of grace.
(4)Christ as our new Lawgiver has enlarged, expanded and raised the standard of holiness expressed in the Ten Commandments.
(5)O T believers are saved by grace through faith in Christ but are not included in the church.
(6)O T believers are part of Christ’s body and bride, but not of His Church.
(7)Baptism is not now the N T counterpart to circumcision.
(8)There are no such things as ‘covenant children’

To be fair, ‘New Covenant Theology’ is not so antinomian as it appears to be on first acquaintance but it is harmful in our view in that it fails to recognize that the Moral Law is given to Christians as the rule of their life in this world. It is gratifying to know that John Reisinger’s view of the Moral Law is comprehensively answered in the excellent book on that subject by his own brother Ernest Reisinger. We especially recommend the following two books as helpful reading to counteract these views:
The Law and the Gospel, Ernest Reisinger, (Presbyterian and Reformed);
In Defense of the Decalogue, by Richard C. Barcellos (Winepress Publishing).

3. The ‘Federal Vision’ Teaching

This is also referred to as ‘The Auburn Avenue Theology’ named after a Presbyterian Church in America congregation situated in Louisiana, and located in Auburn Avenue in the town of Monroe. This teaching is, in our view, very dangerous. One American writer whom we have seen, Dr Richard D Phillips, helpfully expresses his concerns about the Auburn Avenue teaching in this way: ‘If the Federal Vision is permitted to flourish in our communions (he means of course ‘churches’ by this term) it can only have the same effect among us that Anglo-Catholicism had among the once Reformed Church of England, ushering in the twin evils of dead religion and rapprochement with Rome.’

The Auburn Avenue movement is extremely new. It may be said to have begun in 2002. However in the USA and Canada it is raising deep concerns far and wide, not only in the Presbyterian Church in America where it started but in other orthodox Presbyterian denominations. It cannot be long before its influence will also be felt over here in the UK.

(1)The Federal Vision emphasises the external aspect of grace, i.e. baptism. The covenant is represented as having ‘objectivity.’ By birth alone the children of believers are thought of as being blessed with salvation. It is felt to be unnecessary and even offensive to evangelise ‘covenant children’ or to seek to lead them to a personal faith in Christ. To argue that a child must have faith is to say that salvation is not really of grace.

This is certainly not a view which our churches have held or taught. No-one is in God’s covenant in a saving or spiritual way till he or she is born again (Jn.3). Baptism places a child into the visible church but not into the invisible church. He is not a Christian who is one outwardly but who is one inwardly. These are the immense issues raised by the Auburn Avenue teaching.

(2)Emphasis is placed not on the need for faith, repentance and the new birth, so much as on the need for ‘faithfulness’ within the covenant. This seems to imply, in an unwarranted way, a place for works as essential for salvation. It is hard to believe that this emphasis would not lead to mere outward, nominal Christianity.

(3)This emphasis on ‘faithfulness’ as a condition for realising the blessing of the covenant is shared with the ‘New Perspective.’ We might describe such teaching as Hyper-Covenantalism, a tendency to give the sacraments an importance which is not scriptural. Our churches have never held the view that baptism and the sacraments have power in themselves to save us and to make us the possessors of eternal life.

(4)’Federal Vision’ writings abound in references to the idea of ‘covenant’ but they do not give sufficient prominence to the Lord Jesus Christ – His person and His work. They do not sufficiently stress that we only enter into the benefit of Christ’s saving work when we personally and individually come to faith in Christ. And faith is the fruit of the new birth.

(5)In our judgment, the ‘Federal Vision’ teaching, if not guarded against in our evangelical and Reformed churches, will reduce them to sheer formalism and nominalism in the next generation.

A helpful book to read on this subject is: The Auburn Avenue Theology – Pros and Cons, published by Knox Theological Seminary.

[Reproduced by permission from the Free Church Witness, March 2006]

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