Book Review

"Getting the Gospel Right:The Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul" by Cornelis P. Venema

R. Scott Clark
Cornelis Venema
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2007

The current controversy over the doctrine of justification touches upon several interrelated questions beginning with the nature of Judaism as the Apostle Paul experienced it, covenant theology, and the doctrine of justification. These questions and particularly the doctrine of justification are at the heart of historic Protestant theology and piety.

Beginning with the work of Krister Stendahl in 1963, E. P. Sanders in 1977, and continuing with the work of James D. G. Dunn in 1982, and N. T. Wright following them, there has been a revolution in New Testament studies and biblical theology known as the New Perspective(s) on Paul (hereafter NPP). Arguing that Paul was misunderstood by the Reformation, and that the confessional Protestant doctrine of justification is misguided or irrelevant, the work of these and other scholars has sent shockwaves through the Protestant churches. In North America, this movement has spawned an ecclesiastical (and para-ecclesiastical) movement self-described as the "Federal Vision." If the NPP is correct, then the Reformation must be abandoned, ecclesiastical confessions junked or revised radically, and the entire institutional church reordered. Consequences of such magnitude demand our attention.

Despite the importance of the issues, many pastors will be hard-pressed to become expert in the several fields covered by these developments and even fewer elders and laity will be equipped to address these issues. Overwhelmed by the magnitude and number of the questions, many have perhaps been tempted simply to dismiss them as too complex or too remote. Until now, such reactions might have been plausible, but with the publication of this volume, pastors, elders, and laity are without excuse. This short volume written by the professor of doctrinal studies and president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary (Dyer, IN)explains clearly the major issues and personalities behind the NPP and provides the outline of a confessional Protestant response.

The book is in three parts. The author first provides a brief survey of the Reformation "alones," that is, the formal principle of the Reformation: justification, "Scripture alone," and the material principle of the Reformation by grace alone, through faith alone. Second, he surveys the main arguments of three of the principal proponents of the NPP. In the final section, he offers a series of six criticisms of the movement.

Some of the academic and popular proponents of the NPP defend their movement by appealing to sola Scriptura, thus Cornelius Venema begins with a brief discussion of sola Scriptura, namely by saying what it is not. "Reformation according to the Word of God" is not the same as "fascination with new views simply because they are new," or one might add, because they claim to be more biblical. The appeal to "Scripture alone" is a little ironic since the proponents of the NPP are typically quite hostile to other aspects of the Reformation, despite the fact that, as Venema notes, in their writing one seldom finds "any sustained treatment of the doctrine of justification that was advocated by the Reformers."

He notes that according to the Reformation, justification is a "legal declaration by God which pronounces the justified person righteous or acceptable to him." This view is in stark contrast to the Roman definition of justification, which maintains that justification is grounded in "moral transformation" or sanctification. In contrast to Rome, confessional Protestants hold that justification is definitive and not progressive. We hold that the ground of justification is Christ's perfect righteousness, which is imputed to us. Rome teaches that we are justified by Christ's righteousness wrought in us. Because the legal basis of justification is extrinsic to believers, the object of faith is also extrinsic. In justification, faith does not look to anything wrought within the believer but to Christ's work for the believer. For this reason we speak of faith alone. This is why Calvin called faith, in justification, a receptive thing, like an empty hand, and the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF 11.1) speaks of faith as "receiving and resting."

According to Venema, E. P. Sanders rejects the view that Judaism was mainly a religion of works righteousness. Rather, according to Sanders, Judaism in the time of Paul was a gracious religion of "covenantal nomism," which he summarizes in eight points that are themselves summarized thus: one gets into the covenant by grace and stays in by obedience to the law.

James D. G. Dunn has augmented Sanders's recharacterization of Judaism by arguing that Sanders failed to explain adequately Paul's relations to Judaism. Dunn argues that Paul was most concerned about Jewish exclusivism, not legal righteousness before God. The Judaizing "works of the law" were not about standing before God as much as they were social boundary markers.

The longest part of the survey of the NPP authors is reserved for N. T. Wright who agrees that the Reformation misunderstood the setting of Paul's teaching and read its own reaction to Rome back into the New Testament. According to Wright, the problem of the Judaizers was a perverted nationalism. They were boasting in their national privilege of being the people of God rather than exercising faith in Jesus the Messiah. According to Wright, justification is not as much concerned about how a sinner is righteous before God as much as it is with answering the question: Who is Lord? Justification is really about submitting to the Lordship of Christ. Further, Wright concludes, the idea that God imputes to sinners an alien righteousness is completely unnecessary; one might even call it "gratuitous." The "righteousness of God" refers to his faithfulness to his covenant, but the ground of our standing before God remains ambiguous. According to Wright, faith is the badge of membership in the covenant community. Indeed, on this reinterpretation of justification, as it turns out, the Reformation divide between Rome and the Protestants was a colossal mistake. Since we all have faith in Jesus the Messiah, we are all members of the covenant. Indeed, justification refers to Christ's historic resurrection and our present faith, but chiefly it refers to our future vindication as those who have had the law written on our hearts and lives. Wright's view of the atonement is also fuzzy. Though he clearly teaches a sort of Christus victor (Christ the conqueror) view of the atonement, it is unclear how he relates that aspect of the atonement to Christ's work as substitute or whether he sees Christ as a substitute at all.

In response, Venema offers six points of criticism of the NPP, which can be stated briefly: The proponents of the NPP exaggerate the achievement of Sanders. Venema criticizes Sanders for begging the question, that is, assuming the conclusion in premise of his work. Does the evidence Sanders adduces to prove a "gracious" Judaism really prove that Judaism was not also teaching justification by works? It is perhaps true that Judaism in Paul's day did not teach a bald doctrine of salvation by obeying the law without the aid of grace. In the history of Christian theology, this view is known as Pelagianism. Quite helpfully, however, Venema points out that the doctrine of salvation Sanders describes is accurately described as semi-Pelagian, that is, justification by grace and cooperation with grace, and it was precisely this doctrine of salvation that the reformers rejected.

Venema concedes that the NPP has a point when it places Paul's polemic in the context of Jewish exclusivism, but, he argues, Paul's attack against justification through "works of the law" cannot be reduced to mere sociology. There is too much evidence in Paul's epistles that he had an abiding concern with salvation of sinners from the just judgment of God. Venema also criticizes Wright's truncated account of the biblical doctrine of "the righteousness of God." It means more than simply God's covenant faithfulness. It also refers to his retribution against lawbreaking. Venema fundamentally rejects the move to recast justification in sociological terms. Through a brief survey of Romans, he points out the numerous places where the NPP cannot account for Paul's language without doing serious harm to the text of Scripture. He also criticizes the high-handed dismissal by the NPP of the biblical categories of substitution relative to the atonement and the intimately related Pauline doctrines of imputation and faith as the sole instrument of justification. His last criticism pertains to Wright's doctrine of "final justification." If the NPP's redefinition of justification is wrong, there is no ground for Wright's notion of future justification based on works. Instead, Venema reminds us of the distinction between a judgment "according to works" and a judgment "on the basis of works." We believe the former and deny the latter.

For those with little or no familiarity with the work of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, this volume is the place to begin the journey. From here, readers will want to go to the work of Guy Waters, the third volume in Michael Horton's series on a covenantal approach to Reformed theology, and finally, to Venema's expanded version of this book to be published at the same press.

The only fault this reviewer can find is the author's characterization as Lutheran the conviction that justification is the article of the standing or falling of the church. To the best of my knowledge, the expression, "the article of justification is said to be the article of the standing or falling of the church" was used by the Reformed theologian J. H. Alsted in 1608.

This work has four great virtues: First, it is brief. Though a minister might balk at handing out a weighty tome to an elder or layperson, one can have no hesitation in distributing this book. It can be read easily in a couple of evenings. Second, it is accessible. Venema presents a series of potentially unfamiliar ideas in ways that is quickly grasped. Third, it is accurate. Indeed, he expresses the views of the NPP clearly, and he allows them to be ambiguous where they choose to be. Proponents and defenders of the NPP complain more than usual about being misrepresented. Though doubtless they will also complain about this book, such complaints should be regarded as groundless. Venema has represented their views with more care than they have ever expended in representing Protestant orthodoxy. Fourth, it is helpful. The book offers excellent summaries of the Reformation doctrines and interests and relates his critique of the NPP to those concerns. One cannot read this volume and come away uncertain about what is at stake: the future of confessional Protestantism.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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