Thursday, October 25, 2007

More thoughts on the New Perspective

Here are some more thoughts on the “New Perspective”, a theological framework initially built by Sanders and Dunn, but becoming increasingly significant as a consequence of the work of N.T.Wright. It does away with much that has been considered important in reformed theology (such as justification by faith), but it does this because it has already jettisoned other aspects of reformed theology that had hitherto been considered important.

The New Perspective is dependent upon texts other than the Bible. The people who are most influential base their arguments upon interpretation of texts relating to the practice of Judaism around the time of Christ. The interpretation of those texts is disputed – we are talking about texts written over half a millenium. It has been suggested that to describe these texts as having a coherent message of their own is misleading, and in any case, there is likely to be a difference between the written expression of beliefs and its everyday formulation.

But regardless of how this interpretation stacks up, the New Perspective is methodologically “unreformed” as well. How can we justify the use of texts other than the Bible? From a reformed perspective, we understand that the Bible is God's inspired word, and reliable as it is. We also understand that the text is perspicuous – God's message is fundamentally clear. We also understand that the Bible is sufficient – God has given us everything that we need in it. All of these principles are discarded with the New Perspective.

There is a coherence in the position that accepts the Bible as authoritative but not other texts. If other texts are to be used as authoritative, then the justification for using other texts needs to be made and defended, before they can be accepted – you can't simply take texts arbitrarily chosen from somewhere other than the Bible and then expect without justification to use them as a foundation. Or at least, if you were a Bible-proclaiming church minister, you couldn't. And yet that is what has happened, as the New Perspective is taught in theology classes and ministers pick up and present its conclusions as the results of Christian scholarship.

Beyond this lies the fact that our understanding is that Christ is the head of the church – and that the church is the locus of Christian life. Whilst academic theology has benefitted the Christian faith, it is important to recognise that Christian theology is not driven by university departments, but by the Christian message itself, which is a missionary message that finds its proper expression in the life of the church, which is the body of Christ. Again, call me reformed if you want – but reformed theology is self-consistent and coherent in this regard. Theology should flow out of the church, and out of a pastoral setting, not out of an academy – this is simply consistent with what it expresses about itself, a matter of the coherence of Christian belief. Christianity isn't fundamentally about presenting sufficient papers for a theology department to grant you tenure. Nor is it about reinventing the wheel – coming up with an entirely new theology that works “for you”. It is about a message once given to the apostles, and preserved in Scripture. If this idea is to be jettisoned, then an alternative "epistemology of Christian belief" needs to be offered and justified.

The proponents of the New Perspective also suggest that the idea of justification by faith flows out of the historical particulars of Luther's situation – his perception of his moral guilt, his conflict with Rome. But if we are to play the deconstruction game, then why not apply that to the New Perspective itself? What are the historical particulars that might be driving the New Perspective? The desire for political correctness and inclusiveness; the desire to avoid the accusation of anti-semitism (although there is no way that properly expressed Christianity could possibly be considered anti-semitic); the desire to achieve ecumenical aims – unification with Rome; the desire not to appear “fundamentalist”? It is hardly a surprise that those are exactly what the New Perspective claims to achieve. Deconstruction really gets us nowhere – it doesn't allow us to determine whether "Luther's version" of Christianity or the New Perspective one is more right. We need a means of analysing the content of both that transcends the historical particulars that drove both. Which takes us back to the question of an "epistemology of Christian belief".

Of course theology is driven by a historically particular situation – and I would argue this is the difference between theology (which is particular) and God's Word (which is universal). However, even if theology is particular, it is designed to reflect in the particular situation something that is absolutely true – and that is God's Word. That is how it is possible to discriminate between different theology – and come to a conclusion as to what is good theology and what is bad theology – on the basis of the extent to which it reflects what we understand to be true. If our idea of absolute truth shifts, to include things beyond God's word – or worse, it suggests that God's word is no more than another authority – then we have the Pilate problem – what is truth? Theology ends up cut adrift from its moorings, and becomes personal and subjective.