Sinclair Ferguson on the New Perspective

Published on July 4, 2018 by Joshua R Monroe

Mentor, 2007 | 336 pages

Sinclair Ferguson on the New Perspective

This piece is from Sinclair Ferguson’s “Introduction” to Justified in Christ (Scott Oliphint, ed.)
Mentor, 2007, pages xiii-xxi, and is used here with permission.


The more specific background to this whole book—as will soon become evident—is the authors’ shared concern about the influence of what is usually referred to as “The New Perspective on Paul.” It may therefore be helpful to readers less familiar with it to provide some hints to understanding what this nomenclature denotes, and to give some preliminary indication as to why it has become such a live issue among evangelical Christians today.

Itis worth saying that what is in view here is a perspective rather than an agreed set of dogmas. It is shared by people whose views of specific Christian doctrine may differ substantially (e.g. for example, on the nature and the reliability of Scripture). For that reason, aspects of it, and its proponents, constitute something of a moving target.

The “New Perspective” began life as a new perspective on Jewish faith and religion around the time of Jesus and Paul. In essence its contention is that the Judaism of this period of the second temple was—contrary to Protestant interpretations of the past—actually a religion of grace. It was most certainly not a religion of “works-righteousness.” It did not teach that salvation is earned by self /effort. Rather, it held that salvation, or entry into the covenant community, was entirely a matter of grace. Thereafter obedience to the law was the way of remaining in the community whose principal external “boundary” markers were observing the Sabbath, the rite of circumcision, and the food laws. Consequently the teaching of Jesus and especially of Paul must be read (or re-read) in that light.

Hovering in the background here is a view not only of the Judaism of the first century but also of the history of the Western church since the time of the Reformation. Proponents of the New Perspective tend to emphasize that Western biblical scholarship was historically deeply influenced by the ghost of Augustine and the categories within which Martin Luther, the great German reformer, understood the gospel.

For Luther the great personal issue was how a sinful man can be justified before God. The “problem” the gospel solves was essentially that of his guilty condition before a righteous and holy God who abhors sin. Luther held that justification, being accounted righteous before God, takes place when the individual trusts in Jesus Christ who was “made sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Like Calvin, Luther was awestruck by the wonderful exchange, in which our sins were accounted (“imputed”) to Christ on the cross, and his righteousness was accounted (“imputed”) to us through faith. For the Reformers, then, this “wonderful exchange” meant that a double imputation lies at the heart of the gospel. Thus justification was seen as “the standing or falling article of the church” (Luther) and “the hinge on which all religion turns” (Calvin).

Both Luther and Calvin believed that the late medieval church had distorted the gospel to the point of destroying it. They saw parallels and analogies between, on the one hand the Judaism which opposed Jesus and the Judaizers Paul encountered, and on the other the teaching of the late medieval church. They believed that in their exposition of the gospel over against Rome they were simply echoing the teaching of Jesus and Paul, and in their polemics against Rome were standing foursquare within apostolic teaching.

In the past century, the trickle of scholarship that once suggested this was not the whole story—or even the true story—has become a river. Notable protests were issued almost a century ago by Claude Montefiore (a Jewish scholar), and George Foot Moore. They argued that Judaism was a religion of grace, exhibited in delight in Torah. This position would later be developed in the post World War II era by three individuals.

In 1948 a Welsh scholar, W. D. Davies published Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, in which he argued that Saul of Tarsus was essentially simply a rabbi who found in Jesus the fulfillment of the prophecies about the Messiah. In this—admittedly a dramatic enough volte-face for someone who had persecuted Jesus’ followers, but not in any works/grace antithesis—lay the distinguishing feature of his gospel.

In 1963 the Swedish scholar Krister Stendahl, Dean of Harvard Divinity School and later Bishop of Stockholm, published a paper in The Harvard Theological Review entitled “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” Interestingly, in the light of its title and approach, Stendahl”s essay had originally been a lecture given to The American Psychological Society in 1961. But its chief impact would not be so much on psychologists as on New Testament scholars.

Stendahl argued that the idea of the guilty conscience in Paul was a construction—a fabrication, really—of Western Christianity, in particular due to the influence of Augustine. It has always been- he believed significantly- absent in the Eastern church. Far from suffering from a burden of guilt prior to his experience on the Damascus Road, Paul in fact considered himself in a right relationship with God, “as to the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:6). His so called “conversion” was in fact not a conversion from “guilt” to “grace” at all. Rather it was a realization that Jesus was the Messiah. Whatever he experienced on the Damascus Road, it was not a Western sinner’s conversion, but rather a “call” to recognize Jesus as Messiah. Responding to this, Paul began to believe in Jesus and to proclaim him as Messiah. Paul’s “sin” was not the guilt of spiritual and moral failure, but the error of persecuting the church and failing to recognize that it was the community of the Messiah. He was not a prototype Luther longing to have his guilty conscience relieved. One important development of this for Stendahl was the contention that the heart of Paul’s great Letter to the Romans (and therefore, the heart of his gospel) was therefore to be found not in Romans l-4, but in Romans 9-11.

A sea-change came with the work of E. P. Sanders (son-in-law to W. D. Davies). His work Paul and Palestinian Judaism took further the trajectory of his predecessors in a way that has revolutionized the map of New Testament, and particularly Pauline, studies in the past quarter century. Sanders’ study focused on comparing the pattern of religion in Paul with that in Jewish literature between 200 BC and AD 200 Judaism, Sanders argued, was a religion of “covenantal nomism.” A right relationship to God is established by his gracious covenant. Obedience preserves the individual in that position. The sacrificial system provides for failure. The key element in his thesis was that this “pattern of religion” is not dissimilar to the pattern of religion which we find in Paul the Christian—a pattern of grace, not a pattern of self or works-righteousness.

How does such a view impact the way Paul and his teaching are interpreted? It immediately raises a question about how his conversion is to be analyzed.

Sanders argued that our access to this is by reasoning from the solution to the problem. What was unveiled to Paul on the Damascus Road (i.e. what was the solution?)? It was Jesus is the Messiah. Saul’s problem therefore was not that he was seeking salvation by his own works, nor that he was racked by a guilty conscience; it lay, rather, in his failure to recognize Jesus as Messiah for all, and in the implications (persecution) that resulted from his blindness. In summary, in perhaps Sanders’ best known sentence: “this is what Paul finds wrong with Judaism: it is not Christianity.”

This being the case Paul’s problem with the Judaizers was not that they were smuggling works-righteousness into salvation, but that, by their insistence on the traditional boundary markers, they were excluding those whom the Messiah included in his community. For if salvation required the observance of those markers, (i) Gentiles would be excluded from God’s people, and therefore (ii) Christ would have died in vain.

Sanders’ work became the starting place for much contemporary rethinking of the New Testament. For scholars, of course, a Copernican revolution is always a highly productive event. Indeed it would be difficult today to write a paper or monograph on New Testament theology without at least paying lip service at the shrine of the New Perspective. While some who once did so have changed their minds as their thinking has progressed, in the English-speaking world (where the New Perspective has most rapidly gained ground) the output of two British scholars has attracted a great deal of attention: James D. G. Dunn, formerly Lightfoot Professor at the University of Durham (usually attributed with coining the expression “new perspective on Paul”) and N. T. Wright, coincidentally now Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. Without the influence of these two high profile scholars it is likely that the New Perspective would have taken much longer to impact the evangelical church.

Like a considerable number of contemporary scholars, both of these authors have evangelical backgrounds, were active as students in the InterVarsity Fellowship (now Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship) and in the British scholarly society associated with it, The Tyndale Fellowship. They draw differing exegetical and theological conclusions from their new perspective – and this underscores the importance of the term “perspective.” But in general they share the view that Paul’s concern (e.g. in Galatians and Romans) was not that of grace over against works, or the pursuit of a self righteousness, but the requirement, for fellowship, of the works of the law, in particular, the familiar “boundary markers” of circumcision, Sabbath, and the kosher food laws, contrary to the gospel way of faith in Messiah Jesus. For them too, Judaism was essentially a religion of grace, not of works righteousness. Thus, when Paul speaks about “justification” he is not in fact talking about “the way in” but describing the status of those who already are in.

In essence, therefore, Saul’s conversion was not at all like Augustine’s, or Luther’s, or Bunyan’s, nor are his polemics like that of Augustine against Pelagius, or Luther against Rome, or for that matter Bunyan’s against high Anglicanism.

The obvious implication of this, however guardedly or palatably stated, is that traditional Protestantism has misunderstood Paul and with him Judaism. It has read Jewish religion and especially the Pharisees through Lutheran eyes, and mistakenly viewed Judaism through the lenses of the errors of Rome.

The “New Perspective” is seen to offer several benefits to the contemporary church. For one thing, it alleviates the charge that the Christian gospel, and in particular the apostle Paul, are guilty of anti-Semitism in the sense of misrepresenting true Judaism. For another, its implication would seem to be (and is sometimes virtually stated to be) that the conflict of the Reformation could have been avoided if both Roman Catholic and Reformation theologians had been able to understand the true nature of the gospel. Then both could have recognized their errors and arrived at… yes, a new perspective! The New Perspective then becomes a great—perhaps the great—ecumenical alchemy. Moreover, its focus on Jesus” Lordship as Messiah is seen to provide a solid foundation for a this-worldly Christianity that engages in social and political action.

The critical side of this emerges in the conviction that this perspective recovers the true biblical gospel, and saves evangelicalism from part of its own history. Evangelicalism can live and breathe because it knows that salvation is by grace; but it has employed a false anatomy to understand and express how the heart of the gospel functions. This is particularly clearly articulated by N. T. Wright. Critiquing the view that the doctrine of justification by faith is the gospel, and that the gospel is “an account of how people get saved” he affirms, rather, that

“The Gospel” is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. “Justification” is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other (What St. Paul Really Said, pp. 132-l33).

Several things are worth noting here. The first is that the implied critique of evangelicalism is a caricature. Doubtless the caricature exists—we have already noted the evangelical slide into focusing on experience. At that level we can agree. But it is, nevertheless, a caricature, not the real thing. For the idea that justification by faith (or thinking that one is justified by believing in justification by faith) is the whole of the gospel has never been the foundation of historic evangelicalism. The work of Christ has always been foundational to everything else. Nevertheless, evangelicalism has always maintained that the “way in” is justification by faith.

The second thing to note here is not so much what is said—which, by its use of biblical language and categories may seem to be nuanced towards the language of historic evangelicalism—but what is not said. There is here no specific reference to the atonement, far less an explicit confession of Christ’s death as penal and substitutionary. It is not denied. It might be said that this is surely covered by the way “Jesus’ lordship … works with power.” But its absence is telling. There are elsewhere references to key evangelical ideas (propitiation, for example, although in this writer’s view not adequately set within the context of a thorough exposition of divine wrath that evokes the horror of Romans l:l8ff, or Revelation 6:l2ff). What is clear is that central to this vision of the work of Christ is not so much atonement as penal substitution but Christ’s victory over the “principalities and powers.” This view, when popularized by the Swedish theologian Gustav Aulen’s book Christus Victor (1931), certainly had in view a reconfiguring of the gospel—and in Aulen a deemphasizing (even repudiation) of penal substitution as the heart of the atonement and therefore of the gospel.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that also associated with this view is a denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. This is argued in part on the basis that righteousness is an attribute of God and in the very nature of the case, attributes cannot be “imputed.” The implication of this view is—logically and inevitably, even if not always recognized—that our sin cannot therefore be imputed to Christ. For my sin is also an attribute—my attribute!—and if an attribute cannot be imputed to another, it is not only Christ’s righteousness that cannot be imputed to me but, alas, my sin cannot be imputed to Christ. Thus the very heart of the evangelical faith is eviscerated.

A third thing should be mentioned here. It has been implied and sometimes stated by adherents of the New Perspective that the Reformers were mistaken in virtually equating the Judaizers who plagued the church with the “salvation without grace” teaching they saw in late medieval church life. But this seriously misconstrues if not misrepresents the historical situation.

In fact the late medieval church was almost obsessed with grace—and how the individual gets “more” of it by doing what he can. The Reformers well understood that Roman Catholic theology did not outright deny the necessity of grace. Rather they recognized that the “grace” referred to was really not grace at all­ since its reception was so conditioned on a man’s good works. To say “grace” is by no means the same thing as to understand or teach “grace.” One should never be misled by the regular occurrence of the word “grace” into assuming that a biblical understanding of grace is well understood.

The result of this—paradoxically—is that at times one has the impression that the New Perspective fails to notice a strikingly similar phenomenon in Second Temple Judaism, or glosses over it when it appears: the use of the language of “grace,” when in context the “grace” in view is conditioned on man. It is in fact compromised grace, not true grace. It turns out, after all, that while the pattern of the Old Testament’s teaching is that fellowship with God is by pure grace, that grace is at times greatly dis/graced in the rabbinical literature, as it frequently was in the history of the covenant people. Even the notion that the reason Yahweh is so gracious to his poor people is because they have suffered so much turns out to be grace compromised by its conditionalism: there is a reason to be found in man to “explain” why, or to whom, God is gracious. But true grace cannot thus be qualified without being distorted.

More might be said about the question of whether or not Paul experienced a “guilty conscience” before he yielded to Christ. It seems to the present writer that the relationship between Saul of Tarsus and Stephen, the likelihood that they were members of the same synagogue (or synagogue group) in Jerusalem, the fact that Saul had never been excelled by any of his peers … until he met Stephen, and the role that the law against coveting seems to have played in Saul’s life, all suggest that much more was involved in his Damascus Road experience than a call to recognize Jesus as Messiah.

The New Perspective has proved to be attractive to a number of evangelicals who are concerned about the state into which historic evangelicalism has fallen, with its focus on the self and subjective experience. For with the New Perspective comes an emphasis on Scripture as story, on the history of redemption, on biblical theology, on the objective rather than the subjective, and a renewed emphasis on the community of the church and sacraments and on the social implications of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

The authors of these essays share these concerns. They belong to an old tradition, indeed an older tradition, that has long guarded redemptive history, biblical theology, the life of the church, and the implications for the redeemed of the Lordship of Christ. Readers may readily spot here the influences of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, Geerhardus Vos and Cornelius Van Til, Herman Ridderbos and John Murray, and behind them all John Calvin. It would be hard to find a group of evangelicals more aware of the dangers of a subjectivism or a pietism that focuses on faith rather than on Christ, on an experience of justification rather than on the cross. They are well versed in the gospel, and its maintenance is their chief concern. In all of their discussions of justification in Pauline theology, historical theology, confessional theology, and in its philosophical, cultural, and pastoral implications they are concerned to guard what is of “first importance”: “That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures …” (l Cor. 15:3).

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Justified in Christ: God's Plan for Us in Justification

Mentor, 2007 | 336 pages

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