Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lutherans and the New Perspective on Paul

For quite some time now I've been both attracted by, and frustrated with, the New Perspective on Paul. It's primary proponents, including James Dunn, N.T. Wright, E.P. Sanders, and Krister Stendahl, do biblical interpretation that is fresh and faithful, and I have gained much reading their work.

On the other hand, their constant reference to the "Lutheran" understanding of justification and the law betrays a lack of nuanced understanding of the development of Lutheran theology and the living voice of Lutheranism within the Christian eocumene.

So, it has been a joy to read Erik M. Heen's essay in the Autumn 2010 issue of Lutheran Quarterly, "A Lutheran Response to the New Perspective on Paul." I appreciate his essay for at least the following reasons:

1) He has done his research, reading thoroughly the work of all the main proponents of the NPP. Having read only some of each of their work, I've had the suspicions and reactions he has, but not the time or energy to engage them all critically and carefully.

2) He offers a nuanced view of the law and justification in contemporary Lutheran perspective. 

3) He has helped me see precisely where and in what ways the NPP veers from the understanding of justification Lutherans have learned from Paul.

While reading the essay, I kept hoping Wright, Dunn, and others would read Heen's essay. I think they would find him a friendly reader of their work who could help them clear up some of their misunderstandings of Lutheran theology. He might not convince them to re-think Second Temple Judaism and Paul, but I hope they would understand Lutheran theology in a new way, and perhaps use a different term to label the kind of misunderstanding of Pauline justification they are lamenting.

What do I hope they would understand concerning Lutheran theology. First, that Lutherans approach the law not from the perspective of what it is or says, but what it does. Lutherans tend to talk about the "uses" of the law (I tend to think there are two, Melanchthon thought there were three, the Lutheran orthodox thought there were four).

Second, that Lutherans do not (at least in general) tip towards the kind of antinomian understanding of the law that Wright and others lament. Lutherans steeped in their tradition will tend towards the dialectic Luther offers in his The Freedom of the Christian (1520). “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

Finally, if they spent some time reading Lutheran theology, they would find out that Lutherans have never, even during the period of Lutheran orthodoxy, only held to a narrowly construed "forensic" justification. I especially wish they'd read more material from the Luther renaissance, what Heen dubs "The New Perspective on Luther." 

I think what is at issue, at least for Wright, who is the scholar I have read the most closely, is the shape or nature of sanctification in relation to justification. For Luther, justification simply IS sanctification.However, many Lutheran scholars have moved to understandings of the relationship between the two that develop it, such as the Finnish interpretation of Luther and the emphasis on participation in Christ.

I love this quote in Heen: "At least for this Lutheran, when I read NPP characterizations of Lutheranism or the 'old perspective,' I do not recognize them as adequate, even for paraphrases. Often, the proposed alternatives to the Lutheran position on any number of issues seem more Lutheran than what they presumably critique" (285). 



  1. An over-arching Reformation doctrine is the “Perspicuity of the Scripture.” If the Bible is crystal-clear on anything shouldn’t it be on Justification –- a most critical doctrine?

    However, with so many Justifications (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist and now, New Perspective on Paul), which Justification must one follow to be saved?:

    With such an array of Justifications, how is one to find the right Justification from his Bible?

    Hasn't Protestantism lost control of Justification -- "The doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls" (Martin Luther)?

  2. " For Luther, justification simply IS sanctification"

    I would suggest that this is very close, but is not quite what Luther and the Lutheran Confessions teach.

    The problem with Wright and the others with respect to Luther-an and Lutheran teaching on Justification, is that they see Luther with Reformed eyeglasses on.

    It is no wonder, since most modern American Lutherans see Sanctification and it´s supposed relation to the Law with Melancthon´s and Calvin´s 3rd use as being the Lutheran teaching.

    Most (cf Nestingen) read the title of FC art VI "The 3rd use of the Law" and proceed to look for the Melanchthonian (and neo-scholastic Calvin´s) third use: the law as 'sanctification-helper'. All you add to the law is faith and you have sanctification.

    Instead FC art VI, as with all articles in the Confessions, must be read as a demonstration of the application of Law and Gospel to the doctrine treated. Here law and gospel is applied within the "believer". art VI invites us to always ask the question, when the term "believer" is used this: "are you referring to believer as new man or old adam". This does dichotomize the believer into two persons with no communication of attributes, and not merely two calvinistic metaphorical "natures".

    Further art VI asserts a point that should shock most modern american Lutherans: There is NO intrinsic difference between "fruit of the spirit" and "works of the Law" art VI says. This point devastates any idea of a calvinistic "3rd use".

    Melancthon and Calvin are really just a sophisticated return to scholasticism. It is neo-scholasticism. And modern Lutherans HAVE followed them:

    Aristotle: Virtue is a habit acquired by practice

    Scholastics: Virtue is a habit acquired by practice enabled by infused Grace that preceeds justification.

    Melancthon/Calvin Neo-scholastics and most modern American Lutherans:

    Sanctification is the result of justification and is the practice of uniquely christian virtues ("fruit of the spirit") enabled by infused grace/faith or the indwelling of the Holy spirit. The only difference between this and rome is that aristotelian virtue ethics are placed after justification rather than before it in the neo-scholastic schema.

    The Confessions (and Luther!): Sanctification is existential and not behavioral. It is the difference between New Man and Old Adam existentially.

    Regenerated, Sanctified New Man=Good Tree=Good Fruit that happens "automatically" "spontaneously" (fc art VI). Think Christ and the Blessed Incarnation here. Jesus did not have that internal dialog we have between what our conscience (ie the Law) tells us and what our fallen heart would really rather do. Jesus just showed up and "did Jesus". There was not dichotomy between what he did and who he was. This is the entire point of this first part of FC at VI. A naive reading is best here.

    Old Adam = Bad Tree= Mortification only can yield that same indentical Good Fruit that the new man and Christ do spontaneously (read: existence-tially). The Old Adam can only sin because that is what his heart desires. new Man can only do good just as Christ as Second Adam could only do good.

    So sanctification is a result of justification. It regeneration or the new birth. The new birth is not justification, but is the personal application of what Christ has done. And this personal application is existential. We become NEW men. Not Old adam refurbished or re-condition-ed as Calvin and Melancthon would have it by some spirit driven aristotelian virtue ethics mechanism.

    I hope this makes sense...