Monday, May 14, 2007

The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ by Cornelis P. Venema

The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ: An Assessment of the Reformation and New Perspective on Paul by Cornelis P. Venema, Banner of Truth Trust, 2006, 337pp (here).

The new perspective on Paul has thrown into question the way in which Reformation theologians interpreted the writings of the apostle. It is argued that the Reformers misunderstood Paul's teaching on justification by faith and the role of the law. Although new perspective scholars do not agree on everything, they unite on the principle that Paul is best understood against the background of Second Temple Judaism. The 16th century debates over justification between the Reformers and Roman Catholicism are really besides the point.

The problem is that some new perspective advocates (who tend to be specialist New Testament scholars), do not always have a firm grasp of the Reformers' understanding of Paul. Venema writes as a systematic theologian. He is able to set his discussion of the new perspective against a broad theological backdrop. The writer begins by setting out exactly what the Reformers had to say about justification by faith. He gives us a clear picture of Reformation teaching, basing his account on the confessions of the period and examples of Reformed interpretation of Paul's writings. He concludes that the Reformers taught that justification is God's declaration that a sinner is right with him on the basis of the finished work of Christ. This righteous status is received by faith alone, apart from human effort.

New perspective scholars such as Tom Wright often point out that Paul was not combating Pelagianism in his letters. But neither were the Reformers combating a form of "pull yourself up by your own boot straps" Pelagianism in Roman Catholic doctrine. Rome teaches that we are justified by grace. But the initial justification has to be supplemented by works. The problem is semi-Pelagianism - a system of grace plus works. Pelagianism teaches that salvation may be achieved simply on the basis of works. In a helpful chapter, Can a Lonely Faith Save, Venema reflects of what the Epistle of James has to say on the subject of the relationship between faith and works in justification. Genuine faith is made manifest in good works.

Having set out the Reformation's perspective, the writer seeks to describe the work of three leading new perspective writers: E. P. Saunders, J. D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright. Venema gives a clear, concise and fair analysis of the distinctive contributions of these three representative scholars. Saunders argued that Paul was not fighting against legalistic Pelagianism in his doctrine of justification. Palestinian Judaism did not teach salvation by works. They advocated a form of "covenant nomism" that stressed that Israel was God's covenant people by gracious election. But their covenant status had to be maintained by obedience to the law. The "works of the law" that Paul complained about in Romans and Galatians were "boundary markers" like circumcision that excluded Gentiles for membership of the people of God. The issue was not salvation by works. Dunn and Wright disagree with some aspects of Saunder's reconstruction of justification and the law, but they accept that Second Temple Judaism was not a legalistic, Pelagian religion. But as Venema points out - if Saunders is right then first century Judaism was, like Roman Catholicism, semi-Pelagian. It taught that people get into the covenant by grace but stay in by works. Perhaps the Reformation understanding of Judaism as proto-Roman Catholicism was not too wide of the mark?

According to the new perspective emphasis, justification is not primarily about the sinner's status before a holy God. It concerns the question, "Who are the people of God?" Faith in Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah is the boundary marker of the new covenant. Jewish nationalistic boasting in the works of the law was contrary to God's intention of gathering Jew and Gentile into one body in Christ. If the issue was nationalism as Saunders claims, then he may have absolved first century Jews of the charge of legalism, only to leave them saddled with the accusation of racist exclusivity.
Venema makes some shrewd observations about new perspective methodology. He agrees that Paul needs to be understood against his first century background. But he argues that historical reconstruction must not be allowed to prejudge Paul's meaning. His writings must be allowed to speak for themselves. Venema quotes Saunders' treatment of Jesus' denunciation of the legalism and hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. Saunders is reluctant to admit that Second Temple Judaism could have been guilty of those attitudes. Should historical reconstruction be allowed to have such a determinative role in Biblical exegesis?
The writer then goes on to reflect on the exegetical issues surrounding the "works of the law" and "the righteousness of God" in Paul's letters. Venema pays careful attention to the key Pauline texts and argues that the "works of the law" have a broader meaning than simply Jewish "boundary markers". In Romans especially, Paul was out to demonstrate that the law condemns all sinners because no-one has fulfilled the law's demands. What guilty sinners need is a saving righteousness from God apart from the works of the law.
Venema appreciates the new perspective insight that the "righteousness of God" is God's covenant faithfulness. But this does not exhaust Paul's meaning. In his covenant faithfulness God constitutes his people in a right relationship with himself by imputing to them the righteousness of Christ. A whole chapter is devoted to a defence of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. The basis of our justification is the obedient life and substitutionary death of Christ. Jesus' righteousness is put to the account of all who believe in him.
The issue of justification and final judgement according to works is discussed with particular reference to the views of Tom Wright. According to him, justification has a forensic element, but the primary focus is on membership of the people of God. At the last judgement professing Christians will be assessed on the basis of the whole life of faith. Their works as well as their initial justification will form the basis of God's judgement. Venema shows that this position undermines justification by faith alone. We will be judged according to our works, but works do not augment our initial gracious justification. They simply demonstrate that the believer has a genuine, living faith.
Throughout the book, Venema writes irenically and is respectful towards those with whom he disagrees. He does not claim to have said the last word on the new perspective controversy and is aware that more, detailed work needs to be done. He is grateful for some of the gains of the new perspective. But Venema has shown that the Reformers had a better overall grasp of Paul's teaching than they are sometimes given credit for. By looking at the issues from the standpoint of systematic theology, Venema has brought an interdisciplinary approach to a subject that is often seen as the preserve of historical revisionists and New Testament scholars. Those who simply tend to write off the older perspective will benefit from Venema's assessment of the Reformation and new perspective on Paul. Everyone interested in following the controversy over Paul's doctrine of justification will benefit from this constructive engagement with new perspective teaching.


Anonymous said...

Rome teaches that we are justified by grace. But the initial justification has to be supplemented by works.

Rome teaches no such thing. Ex: baptized babies go to heaven without ever having performed any works.

The problem is semi-Pelagianism - a system of grace plus works.

And that is not what is constitutive of semi-Pelagianism. After all, the Church council that condemned semi-Pelagianism affirmed the necessity of works for salvation:

"According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul."

The novelty of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism was not that good works were necessary, as the above quote makes clear. The novelty, among other things, was that they denied the necessity that grace precedes good works. Which was, of course, condemned by that same council:

"Recompense is due to good works if they are performed; but grace, to which we have no claim, precedes them, to enable them to be done. (Canon 18)"

Guy Davies said...

The problem for me is that in Roman Catholic teaching, justification by grace is supplemented by meritorious works. In that account, grace and works form the basis of our ultimate acceptance by God. This undermines Paul's teaching that we are justified by faith apart from works. This is where Rome is open to the charge of semi-Pelagianism.

I fully accept that genuine saving faith is active and that being united to Christ leads to a life of good works. But good works do not contribute to our salvation, they are the fruit of our salvation by God's grace.

Vaughan Smith said...

I've just stumbled across your blog and am enjoying it very much. I bought Venema's "Getting the Gospel Right" today after having them recommended by Kim Riddlebarger in his recent Academy lectures. Looking forward to it.

pastor mark said...

IMO, the heart of the matter is this: Is the Bible primarily concerned with saving individuals from God's judgment against sin? Or is it primarily concerned with the restoration of the creation from the powers of sin and death? Critics of the NPP operate from the assumption that it's the former, and, as a result, misunderstand the NPP and assume it must be some form of semi-Pelagian heresy.