Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Another perspective on New Perspectives

For those who don't know, there is some controversy about N.T.Wright and others, who in a theological movement called “New Perspectives” are shifting away from the conventional reformed doctrine of justification by faith. The concept behind this is that when we become a Christian, God credits us with Jesus' righteousness, so that we are regarded by him as being innocent. Wright says things like:
Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian.
I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel.’
John Piper says:
... [Wright is] disconnecting [justification] from the event by which we are saved, or by which we enter into favor with God. To me, that’s the main issue—at what point is God totally for me? Wrath was upon me before my conversion; wrath was upon me before I was in Christ by faith; after faith and union with Christ, wrath is no longer on me.

Justification, I believe, is the way the Bible describes that moment.. Justification is the act by which God says, “I no longer count you guilty. I count you as righteous with the righteousness of my son.” That’s a saving moment, clustered with the call. Wright sees our call as the only decisive saving moment. And I want to put with the call the work of God in justifying me.
Other more qualified people (like Piper) have responded and are responding in more length with more theological depth than I am able to here, and I'm conscious that I don't know much about the matter and may be missing the point myself. However, I wanted to make a few comments.

I should point out that I don't believe that theology is immutable. I believe that the Bible, which I understand to be God's Word, is eternal and unchanging. I understand Christian theology in broad terms to be the application of that Word to specific historical and geographical contexts – and so theology will inevitably change as its context changes. However, this doesn't mean that everything is up for grabs, and even accepting the contextual limits of theology, it does reflect absolute truth.

Now if something's not broken, why try and fix it? At the time of the Protestant Reformation, there were serious problems with Christian theology. On a personal level, Martin Luther – who sought to live a devout monastic life – was profoundly conscious of the inability of his obedience to satisfy the God he recognised in the Bible. It was only when he came to see that “the just shall live by faith” that he knew he could be right with God. This personal discovery of the concept of justification by faith was what changed him. Meanwhile, there were serious problems with the church – widespread corruption, immorality, ignorance of the Bible, pursuit of power and so on. The church was far from behaving in accordance with the New Testament pattern of churches. Whilst technically claiming two authoritative traditions – the Bible and the church – the church was effectively overriding the authority of the Bible with the authority of church tradition. Consequently, it was failing to care for its own sheep, and it was increasingly regarded with contempt by the rest of the world.

So at the time of the Reformation, Christian theology was “broken” at both a personal and an ecclesiastical level, and a new perspective – or as most reformed Christians would suggest, a rediscovery of the old perspective – was required. Is that the case today? Is the reformed doctrine of justification by faith causing such problems that we should be looking again for a new perspective? Of course there are problems, but I suspect that few people would suggest that these were problems as a consequence of this doctrine. Some mainstream churches are failing in religious terms – but these are the ones who for most practical purposes have not sought reformation under God's Word. Wright is perhaps concerned by the lack of ethical rigorousness amongst those people who accept justification by faith – John Piper says that one of Wright's aims is to underscore the significance of the good works that people do. But there are Christian ethics that are built on this foundation. The fact that Christians fail to live up to ethical standards that they ought to doesn't mean that the foundation is wrong; it just highlights the fact that our sanctification is a gradual process that takes our whole life.

So to suggest that justification by faith (God's work) needs revisiting when the problem is apparently the things that we do would seem to be missing the point.

... to be continued