The New Perspective: Justification and Pope Benedict XVI

newperspective.jpgI’ve been reading a new book by N. T. Wright called Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, in which Wright responds to a challenge of his work by John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, in which Piper attempts to refute Wright’s new perspective on Paul.

I’m hoping (Lord willing) to post a few things on Wright’s book, and in anticipation of that, I thought it would be interesting to quote this from Scot McKnight’s blog “Jesus Creed” –

Now the Pope, Benedict XVI, has a book that illustrates this all the more: Saint Paul . I want to illustrate this connection by briefly sketching the Pope’s view of justification, and his view reveals dramatic connections to the New Perspective as well as to classic (old perspective) Reformation teaching on justification. Now for the sketch, drawn from chp 13 of this fine introduction to Pauline theology:

1. The issues are framed in terms of individual (if not gender inclusive) salvation, as in the old perspective: “How does man become just in God’s eyes?” (78).

For those not familiar with the new/old perspective debate, Wright makes a point of restoring the scriptural emphasis on the corporate (body) nature of salvation in additional to individual salvation, arguing that the Reformation and evangelicalism has over-emphasized the individual nature of salvation, nearly ignoring the importance of being saved into the saved community. (I agree.)

2. Paul’s conversion, as esp emphasized in the new perspective, reshaped his view of the relationship of an Israelite to the Torah. This Torah, as in new perspective, is the 5 books of Moses (and not the law principle). In light of Christ, there is an opposition of Law and Grace, as in the old perspective.

Wright teaches that Romans, Galatians, etc. in dealing with “law” is always speaking of Torah, that is, the first 5 books of the Old Testament. Paul’s work is to join Jews and Gentiles into a new, single community, and the Jews were allowing Torah to stand in the way. “Law” is not just the ceremonial law.

I think my view is pretty close to the Pope’s (did I just type that?), that is, yes, that is what Paul was immediately addressing, but the principle is much broader.

3. The focus at the time of the Paul, as we find in the new perspective, is on those works — like Sabbath and circumcision — that built a wall between Jews and Gentiles. Those works had framed “a social, cultural and religious identity” (81). The wall “consisted precisely in the Judaic observances and prescriptions” (81).

Again, Wright argues that Paul opposed identity markers that separated God’s people from each other, being Sabbath, circumcision, Jewish holy days, and such like. The Pope agrees with Wright.

4. With Christ the God of Israel became the God of all people, and this meant the wall had been knocked down. This ecclesial emphasis is decidedly new perspective.

The “new perspective” element is that the wall is not the wall the between man and God but the wall between Jew and Gentile, allowing the Kingdom to be a single kingdom and single community. “Ecclesial emphasis” means emphasis on the church, that is, on being saved to be part of God’s community.

5. Union with Christ, faith in Christ — and here old and new, Lutheran and Catholic become one — in fact, Christ himself, “makes us just” (82). “For this reason, Luther’s phrase “faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love” (82). Here he shows how Christ is love, union with Christ puts us into the life of love, and all good works are works that flow from this Christ who is love and makes all good works works of love. [There's nothing here about double imputation, a move that connects the Pope more to the new perspective and not at all to the strident voices today who make justification little more than double imputation. Strike that slightly: on p. 84, when introducing the next chp, he speaks of God conferring his justice upon a person, uniting him to Christ -- getting closer to imputation.]

Again, the Pope seems to have been reading my stuff! But actually he’s been reading N. T. Wright, who emphasizes the ethical requirements of faith — which, in the New Testament, is never mere intellectual assent.

“Double imputation” is the Reformation doctrine that God imputes to the convert both the sacrifice of Jesus and his perfect life. Wright denies that the New Testament teaches the Reformation doctrine that we are credited with the merit of Jesus’ sinless life, but he does insist that we are credited with Jesus’ obedience on the cross. In technical church jargon, Wright teaches substitutionary atonement but not imputed righteousness.

It’s unclear where the Pope stands on this issue, but he seems to agree, at least, somewhat.

6. So what is faith? “Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life” (82). The form of Christ’s life is love. Our actions are insignificant; what matters is faith; genuine faith becomes love. Thus, Gal 5:6, where Paul speaks of circumcision not mattering but only faith working through love. On p. 85 he anchors this in the perichoresis. Thus, Paul and James belong together: “faith that is active in love testifies to the freely given gift of justification in Christ” (86).

“We become just by entering into communion with Christ, who is Love” (82).

Amen.

Now, here’s the cool part. Ever since Luther, the Catholic Church has wrestled with whether to accept the Reformation understanding of grace. Indeed, during the Council of Trent, serious efforts were made to get the Catholic Church to adopt Luther’s view, in hopes of preserving a unified church in Europe. Eventually, however, Luther’s view was rejected, leading to 500 years of continuing separation. (There were and are, of course, many other issues, but sola fide “faith only” salvation was at the heart of the debate.)

The new Pope has now announced a view of salvation that would be accepted as orthodox in almost any evangelical church. He is somewhere between John Piper and N. T. Wright — which is a very, very long way away from the Council of Trent.

Here’s a quote from a recent homily by the Pope

Therefore, what is the meaning of the law from which we have been freed and that does not save? For St. Paul, as well as for all his contemporaries, the word law meant the Torah in its totality, namely, the five books of Moses. In the Pharisaic interpretation, the Torah implied what Paul had studied and made his own, a collection of behaviors extending from an ethical foundation to the ritual and cultural observances that substantially determined the identity of the just man — particularly circumcision, the observance regarding pure food and general ritual purity, the rules regarding observance of the Sabbath, etc. These behaviors often appear in the debates between Jesus and his contemporaries. All these observances that express a social, cultural and religious identity had come to be singularly important at the time of Hellenistic culture, beginning in the 3rd century B.C.

This culture, which had become the universal culture of the time, was a seemingly rational culture, an apparently tolerant polytheist culture, which constituted a strong pressure toward cultural uniformity and thus threatened the identity of Israel, which was politically obliged to enter into this common identity of Hellenistic culture with the consequent loss of its own identity, loss hence also of the precious inheritance of the faith of their Fathers, of faith in the one God and in God’s promises.

Against this cultural pressure, which not only threatened Jewish identity but also faith in the one God and his promises, it was necessary to create a wall of distinction, a defense shield that would protect the precious inheritance of the faith; this wall would consist precisely of the Jewish observances and prescriptions. Paul, who had learned these observances precisely in their defensive function of the gift of God, of the inheritance of the faith in only one God, saw this identity threatened by the freedom of Christians: That is why he persecuted them. At the moment of his encounter with the Risen One he understood that with Christ’s resurrection the situation had changed radically. With Christ, the God of Israel, the only true God became the God of all peoples.

The wall — so says the Letter to the Ephesians — between Israel and the pagans was no longer necessary: It is Christ who protects us against polytheism and all its deviations; it is Christ who unites us with and in the one God; it is Christ who guarantees our true identity in the diversity of cultures; and it is he who makes us just. To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary.

That is why Luther’s expression “sola fide” is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14).

Paul knows that in the double love of God and neighbor the whole law is fulfilled. Thus the whole law is observed in communion with Christ, in faith that creates charity. We are just when we enter into communion with Christ, who is love. We will see the same in next Sunday’s Gospel for the solemnity of Christ the King. It is the Gospel of the judge whose sole criterion is love. What I ask is only this: Did you visit me when I was sick? When I was in prison? Did you feed me when I was hungry, clothe me when I was naked? So justice is decided in charity. Thus, at the end of this Gospel, we can say: love alone, charity alone. However, there is no contradiction between this Gospel and St. Paul. It is the same vision, the one according to which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity. And charity is the realization of communion with Christ. Thus, being united to him we are just, and in no other way.

(emphasis added). Again: amen.

For those brought up in the Churches of Christ, I can explain it this way. The Catholic Church’s Council of Trent defined salvation in terms that would be very comfortable for many in the conservative Churches of Christ –

Having, therefore, been thus justified and made the friends and domestics [family members] of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day, that is, … they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified …

But no one, however much justified, should consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments; no one should use that rash statement, once forbidden by the Fathers under anathema, that the observance of the commandments of God is impossible for one that is justified.

For God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes thee to do what thou canst and to pray for what thou canst not, and aids thee that thou mayest be able.

His commandments are not heavy, and his yoke is sweet and burden light.

For they who are the sons of God love Christ, but they who love Him, keep His commandments, as He Himself testifies; which, indeed, with the divine help they can do.

For though during this mortal life, men, however holy and just, fall at times into at least light and daily sins, which are also called venial, they do not on that account cease to be just, for that petition of the just, forgive us our trespasses, is both humble and true; for which reason the just ought to feel themselves the more obliged to walk in the way of justice, for being now freed from sin and made servants of God, they are able, living soberly, justly and godly, to proceed onward through Jesus Christ, by whom they have access unto this grace.

Session VI, chapters X and XI (January 1547) (footnotes omitted).

The biggest difference between the Council of Trent’s view of grace and the conservative view is the Catholics taught that God gave strength through the Spirit to actually obey. The Church of Christ view is that you are on your own. Both consider you damned when you commit sin until you petition God for forgiveness.

However, Pope Benedict XVI has announced a view of grace very much in accord with the progressive view — which is a view commonly held among non-Calvinistic Protestant churches. Faith saves both the new convert and the mature Christian, but saving faith produces a life of love.

I must say that the distance between the Catholic and Protestant churches has been greatly reduced. I noted in an earlier post the Catholic acceptance of a Protestant understanding of baptism in the Vatican Council II. And so, Scot McKnight asks in his blog, quoted above, whether the Reformation is over.

The answer (I think) is: not yet, but we’re getting surprisingly close.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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11 Responses to The New Perspective: Justification and Pope Benedict XVI

  1. Royce Ogle says:

    Jay,

    Your statement: "However, Pope Benedict XVI has announced a view of grace very much in accord with the progressive view — which is a view commonly held among non-Calvinistic Protestant churches. Faith saves both the new convert and the mature Christian, but saving faith produces a life of love", leaves me with a question. Is it your view that Calvinistic churches believe faith does not produce love? Or that faith plays no role in the life of a mature Christian?

    Perhaps I am reading into your statement something that is not there.

    Royce

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Royce,

    My only intended point is that the Pope's atonement theology is very close to mainstream, Arminian, Protestant thought. He is not Calvinistic.

    Historically, the Catholic view has been more of a works + faith salvation, but he's now teaching a faith produces works salvation — very reminiscent of what Todd and I are arguing for over at GraceConversation.com.

    Now, most Calvinists would agree that faith produces works, and in that respect, the Pope's views are in accord with much of Calvinism, too. He agrees with Calvinism on many other points, but not on the key TULIP points that have long distinguished Reformed theology from others.

  3. Randall says:

    Jay,
    In the post above we find the following: "In technical church jargon, Wright teaches penal substitution but not substitutionary atonement."

    I am trying to understand what is meant. Could you provide a little more information in hope that it may become clear in mind? Are you saying he does not believe in the penal substitution theory of the atonement but he does believe in penal substitution? If he does not believe in substitution atonement what does he believe regarding the atonement?

    If he believes that Jesus paid the penalty for my sin and that through faith his righteousness is imputed/credited to me than isn't that the penal substitution theory of the atonement?

    Does he believe that the purpose of Jesus going to the cross for some reason other than paying the penalty for sin? Perhaps to be righteous in some way?

    I have heard a few say they believe in substitutionary atonement but not penal substitution – but that seems to be different than what is being said here.

    Maybe my brain is a little tired today and I just need a little help understanding this.

    On a different note, the Anglicans sorted things out for a while and then deliberately chose the middle way (media via) between reformed thinking and RCC theology. However, that was very many years ago. Does this have any bearing on the Pope taking a position closer to Wright than the Reformed thinking in general?

    Peace,
    Randall

  4. Jay Guin says:

    :oops:

    Randall,

    Thanks for pointing out my mistake. Wright rejects imputed righteousness (that we are credited with the perfect life lived by Jesus) but adheres to substitutionary atonement (that we are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus). I knew that. I just wasn't listening while I typed.

    I blame the virus I've been fighting the last few days. :evil: (I wonder what else I messed up. I'm afraid to look. :shock: )

    I've corrected the text.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Regarding the Anglican's taking a path between Catholic and Reformed theology, I can't claim much expertise. Here's what little I know.

    Over the centuries, they've struggled with their theological identity, as the Church of England was originally about the power of the state vs. the power of the Pope, with Henry VIII deciding the archbishop for England should answer to him.

    In the 18th Century, the church swung toward Reformed (Calvinist) theology. Since then, there have been efforts to push both more toward Catholicism (Oxford Movement) and more toward evangelicalism (going back to the Puritans).

    Today, the Anglican communion is a big tent religion, and includes charismatic, near-Catholic, and evangelical adherents. They are fond of saying they are held together by a common liturgy: the Book of Common Prayer.

    The Anglican communion has produced C.S. Lewis, F.F. Bruce, and N.T. Wright (and, evidently, a fondness for initials rather than first names!) And these men have all been major influences in American evangelical churches — and I suspect that their books appear on the shelves of most Church of Christ ministers.

    Nowadays, I find the Anglican communion largely Arminian (in the sense of "not Calvinist"), although Wright steers a course between traditional Reformed and Arminian thinking.

  6. Rich says:

    NT Wright proposes a middle ground between the great divide of works-only based salvation of the Catholics and the faith-only based salvation of the Reformers (Luther, etc.).

    Since the cofC has historically also been in between the above extremes, we all (progressive and conservative) should resonate with some of what he says.

  7. Randall says:

    "The Anglican communion has produced C.S. Lewis, F.F. Bruce, and N.T. Wright (and, evidently, a fondness for initials rather than first names!)"

    So that explains it! ;-)

  8. The free gift — formerly yours by grace — now yours by vindication (cf. N T Wright)!!! God has to do it — his righteousness is his covenant faithfulness!!!

  9. Gary Cummings says:

    Jay,
    I believe FF Bruce was a Christian Brethren, if I am not mistaken. This is the dispensational Brethren, but Bruce is much better than that Scofield theology. Also the Anglican community has produced Michael Green and Stephen Sizer. Check out Sizer's website and you will be blessed. He is a hair more prolific than you are in his web stuff and ministry. I think you would resonate with a lot of what he says. He is one of the leaders in the Confessing Anglican Movement in UK which rejects the higher radical higher criticism, rejects homosexuality, and (for at least Stephen) the fanaticism of the Christian Zionists. He is a great man of God. FF Bruce and Michael Green have been a couple of my mentors over the years as well.
    Check out
    http://www.stephensizer.com

    Thanks,Gary

  10. Jay Guin says:

    Gary,

    You're right. It must've been the use of two initials rather than a first name that confused me. Thanks for the correction.

  11. Randall says:

    Thanks for the comment. When you suggest "the cofC has historically also been in between the above extremes" are you suggesting the cofC believes in salvation by faith plus works rather than either one alone?

    That is the cofC I grew up in but it has been my impression in the last decade some cofCs have begun to move more towards faith alone.

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