Scholar: ‘New Perspective’ corrupts the Gospel at its heart

by Jeff Robinson, posted Thursday, July 20, 2006 (9 years ago)

OWASSO, Okla. (BP)--The “New Perspective” on the apostle Paul’s teaching about salvation has far more in common with the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church than it does with historic evangelical belief, theologian Sam Waldron said at the 24th Annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference July 11-14.

Waldron said the New Perspective undermines the biblical view of justification by faith in Christ alone -- a doctrine at the center of the Gospel -- and represents a return to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by works.

Whereas Martin Luther and his fellow reformers in the 16th century reasserted the orthodox Scriptural doctrine of justification in the Protestant Reformation, the New Perspective overturns it, he said.

“The New Perspective is influencing many in evangelical circles and in my view corrupts the Gospel at its heart,” Waldron, a pastor at Heritage Baptist Church in Owensboro, Ky., said. “... This represents a drastic revision of the Reformation’s definition of justifying faith. When Rome claimed that we are justified by faith, they said things very similar to the New Perspective.”

Waldron is a professor of systematic theology at the Midwest Center for Theological Studies and was pastor of Reformed Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., from 1977 to 2001. He has written numerous books, including “A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith,” “The End Times Made Simple” and “To Be Continued?”

Founders Ministries formed in 1982 and seeks to recover the Gospel of Christ in the reformation of local churches through the experiential application of the doctrines of grace, also known as historic Calvinism. This year’s conference was at Bethel Baptist Church in Owasso, Okla., with the theme “The Gospel of the Grace of God.”

The New Perspective on Paul arose within evangelical circles in the mid-1970s primarily out of the writings of former Oxford scholar E.P. Sanders. University of Durham professor and New Perspective proponent James D.G. Dunn coined the phrase “New Perspective” in 1982 and more recently, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright has popularized the view through such books as “What Saint Paul Really Said.”

Wright is the leading voice of the New Perspective because he is a self-styled evangelical, and he is able to speak and write effectively to a popular audience, Waldron said. Wright’s popular appeal has made him the main conduit that has brought the New Perspective out of the academy and into the pew where it risks poisoning the orthodox doctrine of justification in local churches, he said.

The New Perspective redefines the traditional Protestant understanding of the apostle Paul’s teaching on justification by faith, a doctrine which sits at the heart of how sinners are reconciled to God, Waldron said.

While the major theologians who hold to the New Perspective differ in the way they nuance their views of Paul, Waldron gave six central tenets common to most New Perspective thinkers, tenets that make it a dangerous teaching, Waldron said. These include the belief that:

-- Traditional Protestant theology wrongly caricatures first century Judaism as a religion of works or legalism, whereby Jews believed they had to earn their salvation by keeping the law. Instead, NP theology claims that Judaism was a religion of grace. This is the foundational tenet to the New Perspective and “if it goes, everything else goes with it,” Waldron said.

-- Paul’s doctrine of justification was not about his opposition to the concept of “salvation through works” but about “Jewish exclusivism” that used the works of the law to socially exclude Gentiles from numbering among God’s people.

-- “Works of the law” in Paul’s epistles refer not to works of righteousness or acts to earn salvation, but primarily refer to “Jewish boundary markers” that established who could and could not claim to be God’s chosen people.

-- “The righteousness of God” or the idea of a sinner being “made righteous” does not refer to a new doctrine of non-works-oriented justification as claimed by traditional Protestantism, but refers to law-keeping and good works as a sign of being among the covenant people.

-- Faith is the true fulfilling of the law by a sinner and is the badge of covenant membership on the basis of which one is declared to be a covenant member -- or a Christian. Historic Christianity holds that the sinner is made righteous by trusting in Christ who perfectly obeyed -- or fulfilled -- the law. Thus, salvation comes by grace.

-- Contrary to traditional Christian thought, justification has nothing to do with the righteousness of Christ being “imputed” -- or given by God -- to sinners who trust in Christ.

Waldron critiqued three of the New Perspective’s leading claims by examining Paul’s view of justifying faith in Romans 4:3.

In that passage, Waldron said Paul interprets Genesis 15:6 as teaching that Abraham was ungodly but was counted righteous by God through faith when the patriarch trusted the promise of God to make him a great nation. Abraham simply and only believed God’s promise and was counted righteous by God in the same way all sinners who trust in Christ are saved, Waldron said.

Though this has been the teaching of the majority of Protestant Christians since the Reformation, some New Perspective proponents assert that Paul misunderstood the covenant God made with Abraham, Waldron said, and posit that Abraham was counted righteous through the “work” of faith. Thus, salvation according to the New Perspective -- as in Roman Catholicism -- is by works, Waldron said.

Paul contrasts justification by faith with justification by works in Romans 4:4-5, Waldron said. God reckoned Abraham as righteous in spite of the fact that Abraham was a pagan sinner, Waldron said, and therefore, Paul’s argument is that salvation comes by grace and not by works.

“The emphasis in [Genesis 15:6] is clearly not at all on the virtue of Abraham’s believing works, but on God’s glorious promise,” Waldron said. “It is so clear, then, that Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 15:6 is based on deep and clear insights into the meaning and structure of the Old Testament account of Abraham.

“... It is not as an obedient man, but as an ungodly man that Abraham is justified by faith,” Waldron added. “It is not through his works, faithfulness or obedience inspired by faith that he was justified. It was simply by standing there, doing nothing except receiving, resting on and trusting God’s promise that Abraham is credited as righteousness.”

Ancient Jewish literature such as the Maccabees and Jubilees also interpret Abraham as being made righteous by works in Genesis 15:6, debunking the notion that second temple Judaism was a religion of grace, Waldron said.

“This picture of justifying faith [Paul’s interpretation of Abraham in Genesis 15:6] is consistent with the Reformation,” Waldron said. “It is not at all consistent with the view of the New Perspective. In fact, the views of the New Perspective about the nature of justifying faith are perilously and dangerously close not only to the legalistic Jews of Paul’s day but to the views of Rome from the 16th century until today.”

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