05 June 2007

PCA report on NPP/FV: some concerns 2

In this post, I will begin to provide support and argumentation for the five assertions that I put forward in the previous post.

Some of these posts will be a bit on the long side and for that I apologize - it seems unavoidable if I am going to argue properly. To make things more clear, however, I'll provide a brief summary at the end of each post and will outline what I see as the practical effect of the points I've made.

This post addresses my first assertion:

[1] The report demonstrates inadequate generosity at times in presenting others' views.

At various points the PCA NPP/FV report, in presenting the views of others, fails to take care to present those views in their best and most charitable light.

This runs contrary to our Westminster Larger Catechism 144, which requires "preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor," "sorrowing for and covering of their infirmities," and "a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them."

My second assertion (concerning the way in which the report uses isolated statements as lenses for viewing wider perspectives to the point of distortion) is a specific variety of less than fully charitable interpretation. I will set such instances aside until I turn to my second assertion. The following points, at any rate, are representative rather than exhaustive.

New Perspective on Paul

Analysis: In its summary of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), the report lists five areas that "all the various versions of the NPP have in common" (2208:19-20; emphasis mine). It is, of course, difficult to make the sorts of generalizations that the report attempts here.

The NPP is a wide and varied phenomenon, ranging from more liberal or critical readings of Scripture to ones that remain more faithful to Scripture's absolute soundness and authority. Moreover, some representatives of the NPP stand more self-consciously within a particular confessional tradition while others place their first loyalties more with the academy.

There is also the difficulty of where to place thinkers who are clearly post-NPP, in that their exegesis depends upon issues raised by the NPP and is clearly not a return to pre-NPP thought, but who nonetheless would not self-identify as "NPP."

The difficulty in summarizing such disparate thinkers who, together, constitute "the NPP" leads to problems in several of areas the report's summary.

[a] The report gives the impression that the NPP sees Reformational interpretations of Paul as fundamental "(mis)understandings" that require "substantial revision and correction" (2208:22-23). Yet there is an ambiguity here.

While many proponents of the NPP would see the Reformation as misunderstanding the precise contours of the Judaism that Paul faced, this should not be taken to entail that the NPP rejects Reformational exegesis and doctrine outright, much less the way in which the Reformers rightly applied Paul to their contemporary contexts.

James Dunn notes, "my concern was (and still is) that the doctrine of justification as rediscovered by Luther and as traditionally expounded within Protestantism has neglected important aspects particularly of Paul's original formulation in the context of his mission." Dunn goes on to assert the following:
I affirm as a central point of Christian faith that God's acceptance of any and every person is by his grace alone and through faith alone…I have no problem in affirming that the doctrine of justification is articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae; I am astonished by and repudiate entirely the charge that "the new perspective on Paul" as formulated by me constitutes an attack on and denial of that Protestant fundamental. Anyone who reads that from my writing is reading in what he wants to see, not reading out what is there. The point I am trying to make is simply that there is/are (an)other dimension(s) of the biblical doctrine of God's justice and of Paul's teaching on justification which have been overlooked and neglected, and that it is important to recover these aspects and to think them through afresh in the changing circumstances of today's world. In a word, I seek not to diminish let alone repudiate the doctrine of justification (me genoito), but to bring more fully to light its still greater riches. (From James D.G. Dunn, "A Man More Sinned Against than Sinning? A Response to Carl Trueman")
Likewise, N.T. Wright states,
for Paul there is an intimate connection between God’s free justification of sinners through the death of Jesus and on the basis of faith, on the one hand, and God’s creation, on the other hand, of a new family composed of Jews and Gentiles alike. We can well understand that the Reformers themselves, faced with the urgent challenge of a deeply corrupt Roman Catholicism, rightly wanted to emphasize the first rather than the second. ("Paul in Different Perspectives")
Wright goes on to suggest that his own work is an attempt to retrieve a proper Pauline balance out of fidelity to the Reformational principle of sola scriptura.

Elsewhere Wright notes that if the realm of New Testament studies had been less the provenance of state-church Lutherans and had
instead been led by people in the Reformed as opposed to the Lutheran tradition, the new perspective would never have been necessary. If you take the theology of someone like Ridderbos or Charles Cranfield, you find exactly the same idea in principle, which is that the law was never given as a ladder of good works up which people ought to climb to save themselves; if anyone ever thought that, that was an abuse of the law, because grace and particularly the covenant precedes obedience. ("An Evening Conversation on Jesus and Paul" [pdf])
Wright goes on to note that his own work operates naturally "much more on the Reformed map" because of its emphasis upon the covenant and grace as basic.

Other exponents of the NPP (e.g., Don Garlington, Ben Witherington, Michael Bird) have made similar claims.

Thus, the report tends to distort the degree of discontinuity between at least some versions of the NPP and more traditional, Reformational exegesis. And where the NPP may depart from the Reformation on matters of exegetical detail, it need not arrive at a different theological destination. Even the NPP itself does not typically present an either/or between its own understanding of Paul and that of the Reformers.

[b] The report states that the NPP holds that Second Temple Judaism "did not teach that obedience to the law is the way to salvation" (2208:24-25). Again, there are ambiguities here.

The NPP certainly holds that the Judaism contemporary to the New Testament did not typically see personal, perfect, and perpetual law-keeping as the means by which individuals would merit salvation. It instead takes at face value the fully biblical affirmation that one could be "blameless" before the law (Lk 1:6; Phil 3:6), since Torah itself proclaimed justification only by faith and included within it God's gracious acceptance of sinners through offerings of atonement.

Yet, the NPP's particular historical judgment about Second Temple Judaism does not exclude the possibility that such Judaism, in Paul's view, could easily abuse the law in other ways. For instance, some versions of the NPP (as the report notes) see the law as "a marker of unique religious-ethnic identity" within Second Temple Judaism (2208:28).

But, on many such versions of the NPP, that identity is wrapped up with Israel's role in the history of redemption and God's purposes for the salvation of humanity – and thus Israel's "obedience to the law" does indeed have a role in salvation. On this view, for Israel to misunderstand her identity and calling (and thus the law which marks it out and anticipates its fulfillment), is to distort the purposes of God and to use the law for a purpose for which it was not intended.

Such distortion of Torah can certainly be a form of legalistic pride and a proponent of the NPP could designate it as such, even if it isn't a matter of individualistic merit-mongering or "works-righteousness" as that is popularly understood.

Again, the report distorts the degree of discontinuity here between the NPP and more traditional views, especially given the ongoing development of the Reformed tradition with biblical theologians such as Vos and Ridderbos.

[c] The report asserts that for the NPP, the law functioned in Second Temple Judaism as something "ecclesiological rather than soteriological" (2208:29-30; emphasis mine). This point seems simply misguided, presupposing an "either/or" between ecclesiology and soteriology that neither Second Temple Judaism nor the NPP would accept.

If God's purposes for the salvation of humanity involved the choice of Israel to bear those purposes forward in salvation history, then questions of Israel's ecclesiological identity (as marked out by the law) remain irreducibly soteriological. When Jesus comes, born under law, as Israel's representative and summation, he took up the vocation of Israel for the sake of the whole world and, thus, Israel's ecclesiological function was brought to its soteriological fulfillment.

While the NPP may see various biblical and Jewish texts as emphasizing ecclesiology more than soteriology, relative to a particular rhetorical context (e.g., Paul's argument about table fellowship in Galatians), the two are ultimately inseparable and all versions of the NPP recognize this.

Again the report engages in distortion, turning a matter of emphasis into a dichotomy.

Effects: The report concludes this section asserting that "Needless to say" the NPP "stands in stark contrast to the confessional formulation of these themes" (2209:26-27). One might argue, however, that the contrast in question is more an artifact of the report's own presentation of the NPP than it is of the actual materials in question.

At the very least, the report needs to recognize that there are incommensurate interpretations of the NPP afoot, even among Reformed and Presbyterian theologians and pastors. While the report's own interpretation of the NPP might seem to contrast with our confessional Standards, the report's interpretation is not the only one available, appears to conflict with the self-understanding of NPP proponents at a number of points, and runs in a different direction than interpretations of the NPP by many others who do not see such a "stark contrast."

By failing to present the NPP in the best and most charitable light, the report arguably sets up a straw man that tends to bolster its own conclusions. In doing so, furthermore, the report, if adopted by the PCA, could have the practical effect of ostracizing those Reformed pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars who understand the NPP in more congenial ways. In doing so, the report could thereby place them under an unwarranted pall of suspicion.

Federal Vision

Analysis: With regard to the so-called "Federal Vision" (FV), the report makes a number of different claims that tend to misrepresent the nature of the views under question.

The report asserts that FV proponents hold that all the biblical covenants, "from Adam through Christ" have an "essential unity" so that they "are all basically the same with the same condition, covenant faithfulness" (2212:8-15).

There is a sense in which this may be true, if "covenant faithfulness" simply means fulfilling covenant conditions relative to the respective covenant: a personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience under the covenant of works; an extraspective faith that receives and rests upon Christ under the covenant of grace.

When the report, however, uses the term "faithfulness" in expositing the Standards, it uses "faithfulness" to mean "good works" (2215:31, 38). The report seems to project its own use of the term "faithfulness" upon the use of the term by FV proponents, which is unhelpful and contributes to misconstrual.

It is also the case that "faith" can be seen as a condition of both covenants.

Even so, under the covenant of works, humanity possessed the grace of faith as part of our inherent righteousness in the natural and innocent relation of the human creature to God, whom he trusts as his Creator.

In the covenant of grace, on the other hand, faith is exercised in the context of unbelief and terror as the means of receiving Christ's righteousness. Moreover, in the covenant of grace, faith is a new gift granted by God, whom we trust not only as Creator, but also as Redeemer (see, e.g., John Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, Chapter 2, question 2; Turretin, Institutes 8.2 and 12.4.7).

Thus the "sameness" of the condition is analogical only, a similarity within difference. None of this means, therefore, that the covenants all have "the same condition" in terms of the content of what covenant faithfulness entails or taking the notion of "condition" univocally.

I'm not aware of any FV proponents who flatten out the distinctions in the way the report suggests. While FV proponents may not make their analogical usage clear at every turn, it seems their writings would support such a perspective.

By subsuming one sort of similarity under the notion of "sameness," the report distorts what FV proponents seem to be saying. By doing so, the report hints that FV advocates believe that "faith in Christ" is some kind of substitute work by which we secure our salvation or that "covenant faithfulness," in relation to the covenant of grace, is simply obedience to God. But this reading appears to put the worst construction upon what FV writers have actually said.

The report continues in this vein later when it describes FV proponents as making perseverance a matter of "covenant-keeping" as if such covenant-keeping were anything other than an ongoing trust that rests upon the grace of God held out in Jesus Christ (2230:10). Again, this is not the most charitable reading possible.

Elsewhere the report suggests that the FV tries to use Scripture "to collapse forensic and transformative categories" and thereby "confuse doctrines that our Standards rightly distinguish (i.e., justification and sanctification)" (2225:3-5). The suggestion, again, is that the FV is somehow attempting to make our good works or moral transformation some part of the grounds for our standing before God.

The text which this targets, however, is Leithart's treatment of justification in which he argues "that justification and definitive sanctification are two ways of describing the same act" since justification in Scripture involves "a favorable judgment of God rendered through deliverance from enemies" (see 2221:4-33).

In none of the texts cited, however, does Leithart "collapse" or "confuse" categories or doctrines. To say that God's justifying verdict of right-standing before the divine court takes the form of deliverance, is to say that God performs a single act (being raised with Christ) that has both legal/forensic and transformative dimensions or aspects. Yet that is not to say that the transformative is the basis for the forensic. Nor does it mean that the various aspects cannot be properly distinguished. Neither does it discount that "justification" refers to the forensic and "sanctification" to the transformative. The report's criticism does not appear warranted by the evidence cited.

Turning to the topic of election, the report suggests that FV proponents hold that those whom God predestines unto salvation can lose that election and "become non-elect" so that "the elect can possibly fail to persevere" (2231:14-18) and thereby lose salvation, which once was theirs. This statement reveals a general difficulty with the report in conflating several senses of the term "election" (such conflation seems at work in 2204:36 - 2205:3; 2211:18-29; 2212:27 - 2213:6).

FV proponents distinguish various senses of the term "election."

Such distinctions are relatively standard within the Reformed tradition, which often distinguishes among election to special office, an "external election and separation of a certain people to the covenant of God," and "election to eternal salvation" (Turretin, Institutes 4.7.10). Or, within Calvin's writings, we find a distinction between an "elect people" and the "elect individually" (see, for instance, his comments on Romans 11).

The sort of election under consideration for the FV is election to the visible administration of the covenant of grace, which FV proponents see as the biblical context within which God's purposes in election to eternal salvation are ordinarily worked out and manifest. Nonetheless, these two perspectives upon "election," and its broader and narrower senses, must be distinguished theologically.

A couple possible confusions should probably be cleared up. First, FV proponents are, as the report admits, unanimous in trying to affirm a traditional Reformed doctrine of election unto eternal salvation (2210:28-35).

Second, as far as I can see, FV proponents see even election to the church visible as an unconditional and gracious choice on God's part to predestine some portion of humankind to enjoy the benefits and privileges of the church so considered. All and only those who are predestined in this way by God come to enjoy those benefits and privileges and they do so in the manner and to the degree that God has chosen, not based upon foresight.

Third, this election to the church visible does not entail even temporary faith on the part of those so elected, much less true and living faith. Thus, those who fall away from the church visible do not lose truly saving grace and gifts (which pertain to all and only those who are elect to eternal salvation), but only common operations of the Spirit. This distinguishes FV views decisively from those of the Remonstrants who had a notion of a general and indefinite decree of election in which true believers could fall from faith.

This is not to say that those who hold to FV views have always been as clear as they could be with regard to how they speak of "election" in the broader sense. Sometimes FV proponents have worded matters poorly or in a confusing way (perhaps the language of "no longer elect" is problematic, even with regard to election broadly construed). This does not, however, justify handling such views without due care and consideration.

It is also true that FV thinkers grant more sustained attention to election's broader sense than is typical in Reformed theology. But this attention is also due, in part, to the way in which they have been forced to respond to criticism and does not necessarily represent a preference on their part for such emphasis.

One might also question how the FV handles particular New Testament texts that speak of election, when it reads them as employing the broad meaning of "election," particularly when the Reformed tradition has generally read those texts in terms of the narrow sense of election unto salvation.

Such an objection, however, functions on the level of specific exegesis more than general doctrine. As with most broad biblical doctrines, however, theological conclusions are based on a variety of passages, wider biblical themes, and various forms of reasoning. Thus, one can arrive at the same doctrinal destination by more than one exegetical route.

Furthermore, even with exegesis that sees a broad meaning for "election" in various texts, we can still conclude the more narrow meaning from those same texts theologically. We can rightly see Jesus' essential divinity implicit within passages, taken in the entire context of the biblical witness, where "son of God" may have primary reference to Jesus' messianic identity. Likewise we can see election to eternal salvation as implicit in passages where some argue that election to visible covenant privilege is primarily in view.

That's to say, moving by way of eminence and against the backdrop of the entire biblical witness, one can easily begin with God's unconditional election of persons to visible church privilege still arrive at God's unconditional election of persons to eternal salvation: if God's predestinating will functions this way within regard to the church visible, then how much more must it do so within regard to those who will be saved.

Thus, it is not clear that FV views genuinely undermine the exegetical assumptions behind our Standards.

The way in which the report presents FV views on election seems to suggest that FV proponents hold to a view of election that is more akin to that of Arminianism, which is contrary to our Standards. But this impression results, I think, from conflating or sliding back and forth between broader and narrower senses of election within FV writings, rather that diligently reading FV uses of "election" on their own terms.

Effects: The report seems to put less than fully charitable constructions upon FV discussions of the covenants, covenant faithfulness, and election. In so doing, it suggests that FV proponents collapse the covenants of works and grace into a univocal notion of "covenant" and its conditions, that they propose our good works are part of the grounds of our standing before God, and that they hold to an Arminian understanding of election.

None of these suggestions, however, appear to bear up under scrutiny. By presenting FV views in this manner, the report could have the practical effect of sullying the reputation of Reformed pastors and writers who hold to the teaching of our Standards and yet have some sympathies with FV views. Moreover, the report, if embraced by the PCA, could make it difficult for any PCA theologian or scholar to engage in creative exploration of these biblical themes without immediately arousing mistrust.


I've argued that the report interprets both the NPP and FV in ways that cast them in a worse light than warranted by the materials in question. This lack of generosity has the tendency to exaggerate differences in emphasis into differences in substance and to portray dimensions of doctrine that go beyond our Standards as actually in conflict with our Standards.

In neither case are such exaggerations or portrayals warranted by the report's arguments and evidence.

If the PCA embraces this report, it will commend these exaggerations and less than generous portrayals as representative of how we operate as a denomination. Moreover, such tendency towards distortion might well breed a kind of wariness towards anyone who seems at all favorable toward NPP insights or who wishes to explore dimensions of covenant theology or various biblical senses of "election" - even if such a person's views are wholly consistent with our Standards.

While the nine declarations at the end of the report are, to my mind, unproblematic in themselves, they are nonetheless premised upon the supposed points of conflict outlined in the report. By embracing these declarations in the overall context of the report, the PCA would invite us to pour the content of the report into the declarations, thereby furnishing a tool that might prove detrimental in over-zealous hands.

In these ways, then, in connection with my first assertion, I worry that the report, if accepted, could prove adverse to the health and culture of the PCA.