Endgame of the “New Perspective”?

07 May

N.T. Wright, popular exponent of the “New Perspective” on Paul

NOTE: All of the accounts of conversations I post like these are done with permission from my debating partner. 

I like debating with people who have very different views than mine.  For several months now, I have been debating with a very articulate “New Perspective” Roman Catholic going by the name Adomnan at Dave Armstrong’s blog here.

We seem to be at opposite poles.  Here is one of the things he said to me during our debate:

Both Augustine and Luther were attempting to interpret Paul. Augustine was correct (contra the Pelagians) in teaching that, for Paul, Christian righteousness is a gift, because it is a new and higher life, a sharing in the nature of God. He was wrong about using Paul’s polemic against the Law and works of the Law as an argument against the Pelagians. Luther’s take is basically a misinterpretation/exaggeration of Augustine with certain important innovations, too far removed from the real Paul in context to have anything to do with the Apostle’s authentic teachings. Luther was possible only because of Augustine. His thought never would have grown directly out of Paul. That’s why nothing resembling Lutheranism ever grew in Eastern Orthodox soil, which has Paul but no Augustine. (His name is known, but his teachings largely ignored.)

Let me try to sum up our debate in a bit of a nutshell:

Adomnan says that

“[the] Judaizers believed that adhering to the Jewish religion was necessary to attain and retain the grace of God. The works of the Law were the rites, especially circumcision, that made one Jewish, circumcision being the initiatory sacrament of Judaism, as baptism is for Christians. Paul did not think Gentiles needed to become Jews, which is why he focused on the Law (Jewish religion) and the works of the Law (Jewish sacraments) as something to be avoided. On the other hand, he saw value in what he called the dikaiomata or righteous requirements of the Law, interpreted by Christ, as positive ideals embodying love (the “law of Christ”). That’s why Paul could write that love fulfilled the Law.

Thus, Paul had an ambiguous attitude to the Law (the Jewish religion). He admired its ideals, which he saw fulfilled in Christianity, but he rejected it as a way of life, at least for Gentiles. Essentially, it was part of the old world, now superseded by the new age that the Resurrection ushered in….”

My position is the following:  The Judaizers missed that circumcision, which pointed to Christ and faith, was a shadow that had fallen away now that the reality had come.  Why did they miss this?  Because circumcision to them was not something that God had given them to point to Christ, but was a work that they did in order to attain and retain the grace of God.   In other words, the Judaizers, probably inadvertently, were trying to be justified not by God’s grace in Christ but by the actions/doings they performed, and therefore, Paul tells them that if they want to be justified that way they must keep the whole law Law – all rites, precepts, commands, etc. (particularly Sinai – see Exodus 19-24 and Hebrews 12:18-24)” – “doing”!

Here is how Adomnan responds to my position:

You are setting up a dichotomy that is foreign to Paul’s thought. I have pointed out that “hearing of faith” is less passive than you suggest, because it’s a way of saying what Paul also calls the “obedience of faith.” The “works of the Law” that are set against this hearing/obedience are Jewish rites, circumcision first and foremost — not “doing” in general or even “doing the Law” in particular. After all, Paul says in Rom 2 that “doers of the Law” will in fact be justified: one of the few — the only? — places where doing (poiein) and the Law are joined.

Thus, for Paul:

1) “doing works/works of the Law” = doing Jewish rites, particularly circumcision.

2) “doing the Law” = doing the dikaiomata/righteous requirements of the Law.”

This is why Paul says one can be justified by doing the Law, but not by doing the works of the Law.

I’m not saying that Paul pushed doing over receiving. I am saying that this tension between activity and passivity that you see in Paul is not there at all. It never enters Paul’s mind. “You don’t need to practice Judaism” is not the same thing as “You don’t need to do anything.”

So my new question for Adomnan in the debate is whether he thinks there is such a thing as passive faith/righteousness at all (see Psalm 22: 9,10 and here as well: ).  In our life of faith, we certainly commit to God and decide for Him – but is this the only kind of faith?

I had said of the unbeliever: “They (think they) *deserve* God’s mercy because their good outweighs their bad, or because their good combined with their ‘sincere repentance’ outweighs their bad.”

And he responded:

My point was that Paul says as forcibly as one could wish that perseverance in doing good leads to eternal life and that “doers of the Law” are justified. This is not hypothetical. This is Paul’s fundamental conviction and what he sees as the real situation. Thus, he would agree wholeheartedly with people who believed their repentance and good deeds gained them eternal life: He said as much himself. And nothing he writes about setting aside Judaism as a religion with its rites derogates in the least from this rock-solid principle: “He will pay everyone as their deeds deserve. For those who aimed for glory and honor and immortality by persevering in doing good, there will be eternal life.” (Romans 2:7-8)

For Paul, it is “faith working in love” that justifies.

It’s true that the image of the scales of justice is not frequent in the Bible. However, neither is it utterly absent as a metaphor for judging righteousness: “Let me be weighed in an even balance that God may know my integrity.” (Job 31:6)

Again, this has been a very interesting discussion.  You can see that for Adomnan, we are very much justified by our works.  This is not the way many Protestant New Perspective persons would really want to put it (as persons like N.T. Wright, for example, are eager to point out that justification in the present gives real confidence of salvation [which Rome does not – see here] while their final justification will be “based on the whole life lived”), but Adomnan, being a Roman Catholic, has no such hesitations.

On the other hand, we talk about how “no one is righteous – no not one” – and how Paul really means this.  And we then go on to speak of how the Righteous One and all He has becomes ours by grace when we hear the message that creates faith in our hearts (see Romans 10)

That is, hearing the Word and believing it as would a child.


Posted by on May 7, 2012 in Uncategorized


10 responses to “Endgame of the “New Perspective”?

  1. Jonathan Brumley

    May 19, 2012 at 10:38 am

    “This is Paul’s fundamental conviction and what he sees as the real situation. Thus, he would agree wholeheartedly with people who believed their repentance and good deeds gained them eternal life: He said as much himself. ”

    This really is Pelagianism if Adomnan means that man’s unaided efforts of repentance and good deeds will result in justification.

    Nothing we do is meritorious in God’s eyes unless it is done by God’s grace through the faith He gives us. Faith without works is dead, but works without faith are meaningless. All love has as its source in God. We can’t bear good fruit without first abiding in Him. And we can’t abide in Him unless He first adopts us as His children.

    • Jonathan Brumley

      May 19, 2012 at 10:45 am

      BTW, I suspect Adomnan does not mean that “unaided efforts” of repentance and good deeds actually justify. But it’s hard to tell from the quote you provided. I’ll assume that’s not what he means.

  2. infanttheology

    May 21, 2012 at 11:59 am


    I’m sure he does not mean that either. In the rest of our discussion, that is made clear. Still, what he does say is of course not accepted by the children of the Reformation.


  3. Vincent

    March 13, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    My point was that Paul says as forcibly as one could wish that perseverance in doing good leads to eternal life and that “doers of the Law” are justified. This is not hypothetical. This is Paul’s fundamental conviction and what he sees as the real situation. Thus, he would agree wholeheartedly with people who believed their repentance and good deeds gained them eternal life: He said as much himself. And nothing he writes about setting aside Judaism as a religion with its rites derogates in the least from this rock-solid principle: “He will pay everyone as their deeds deserve. For those who aimed for glory and honor and immortality by persevering in doing good, there will be eternal life.” (Romans 2:7-8)

    I wonder if this writer is talking about Justification as translation or justification as increase? Rome rejects good works as a means of justification in the former case but views good works as contributing to growth in justification in the latter case. This idea about gaining eternal life contradicts the doctrine of condign merit because it assumes man can earn eternal life on a strict tit-for-tat basis rather on than on some divine promise. Gaining is after all a synonym for earn. His comments still smacks of Pelagnism to me because it assumes God owes us eternal life because we have earned/gained it. God can never be in debt to humanity. This Adomnan really needs to read some Aquinas and even Trent to adjust his thinking or at best he can take the following quote from Robert Sugenis (who I disagree with on many things but at least he got this important rule right):
    The conclusion must be that works are necessary for salvation,
    and, in fact, are one of the principle determining factors in
    whether or not one obtains salvation. We say this with the
    proviso that Paul outrightly [sic] condemns works done with a
    view toward obligating God to pay the worker with salvation.
    Man can never put God in the position of being in debt to an
    imperfect and sinful creature. The only way God can accept
    our works is through his grace. Works done under the auspices
    of God’s grace, that is, works done that do not demand payment from God but are rewarded only due to the kindness and
    mercy of God, are the works that Paul requires for salvation

  4. infanttheology

    March 13, 2013 at 5:26 pm


    I am aware of Sugenis’ arguments and I agree that Adomnan needs to read Aquinas. That said, Sugenis’ comments, while more nuanced and sensible than *any* RC from the 16th century (that should give us pause, I think), still fall short because of the need to comfort the sinner (see my series: Hope alone! and the post on Luther and Assurance). The deliverance of this promise, over and over again, is critical.

    This post goes a long way in showing why I think Wright and Rome are wrong:

    Here’s how I harmonize everything:

    Regarding the final judgment, Christians will judge the world as Jesus says and Paul echoes. That said, prior to the final judgment, Christians of course were to judge as God judges: showing mercy – both pity in the form of physical assistance and the forgiveness of God Himself through Christ – to all, first to the believer and then to the terrified unbeliever. Come the separating of the sheep and the goats, Christ and His Church will show mercy to those who have been merciful. In other words, to those who have shown themselves to be His children (after all, sons of God act like sons of God and it is right that they should be found with their father and brother). This means those who have forgiven much – echoing the forgiveness, or reconciliation of God Himself – will be forgiven. This means that those who opened up the Kingdom of Heaven to others will have the Kingdom of Heaven opened up to them. Like Christ, they eagerly gave the promise of paradise to those enemies of God dying to the left of them (and to the right, if they would only have it) who had nothing to give, and could pay nothing back. God’s people, like God Himself, are profligate with pity, mercy, and grace.


  5. infanttheology

    March 13, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    “Adomnan needs to read Aquinas.”

    To see that Aquinas supports not the New Perspective though, but Luther. Not because I am convinced Aquinas faithfully translated Augustine:

    OK, this is it for me today.


  6. Vincent

    March 13, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    He needs to read Aquinas in order to understand that God does not owe us anything and is not under some contractual obligation to reward us with eternal life. Eternal life is a reward based solely on God’s mercy and graciousness and never on some obligation. He seems to believe in the idea of strict merit before God and if that is the case then he contradicts the teaching of Trent and his own church. He is under the anathema of Paul in my opinion because he is trying to make God his debtor which is what Paul was condemning in Romans and Galatians.

  7. Vincent

    March 13, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    God can freely establish an economy of salvation under which God obligates Himself by His own promises, and by grace gives to man a genuine role in his salvation. Adomnan seems to deny any mention of God’s promise but sees him as some of employer who is under contract to pay his employee a wage (his due). Paul condemns man putting God in an Employer-employee type of relationship. Thus in Catholic theology, merit is in no way earning, but identical with the concept of reward. Brought about by God’s grace, acts which please God are done by Christians (Phil. 4:18, Col. 1:9-10, 1Th. 4:1, Heb. 13:16, 13:20-21) and God chooses to reward them (Rom. 2:6, 1 Cor. 3:8, 4:6, 2 Cor. 5:10, Gal. 6:6-10, Rev. 2:23, 22:12). These elements, God’s grace, the acts pleasing to God that they bring about, and the reward God chooses to give, are the key elements in the Catholic theology of merit. Thus the fundamental basis for all condign merit is God’s promise, not the intrinsic value of the human act, even when it is brought about by God’s grace. Without God’s promise we would have no claim on the beatitude God offers; however, under God’s grace we do indeed claim the promises of God, even though what he promises always infinitely outweighs what we have done by his grace.

  8. infanttheology

    March 13, 2013 at 7:02 pm


    I’ll need to re-read Adomnan here, but I think he would disagree with some of your characterizations.

    How do you respond to this?:

    “In short, fallen man always wants to make God his slave. And today, who are the best and most cooperative slaves? Robots. Sure, we might not find them at all fulfilling emotionally – at least not yet – (see Turkle’s Alone Together) but with these we actually get to make the rules and they do what we say. We make the rules and are the primary actors and they respond to us – as we like. When God created us, He did not want us to be this way. But we want Him to be this way.

    In other words, dealing with God is like making and programming a computer. In the recent past, most human beings in the West at least had a different kind of temptation. Having been Christianized, they were, as a whole, more tempted to manipulate God by insisting that when they did the stuff that He said was right and good, He was obligated to reciprocate. Even in the Christian church, the concept of “congruous merit” arose, which stated that “on the ground of equity” we could claim a reward – even the reward of eternal life – from God for our works. In other words, were God not to compensate us, He would actually be committing an offense by violating that which is fitting. He would be unfairly discriminating against us (even if, strictly speaking, as God, He was under no obligation and violated none of our rights in doing so)! In short, what this really means is that man perpetually underestimates the depth and seriousness of original sin – and his sins to boot. That a “Great Divorce” on God’s part would actually be justice does not even seem to occur for many modern persons claiming Christ.”

    Also for my own reference and any others following this, here is my response to your email….

    You said:

    “Your position is that the future eschatological judgement will be according to works as evidentiary in nature, so entrance in heaven will not be based on works, right? You do realize that this view of the final judgement is not shared by Aquinas or Augustine who all believed in meriting eternal life (of course not in a strict sense…

    I responded:

    Works may indeed play a part of man’s justification before God even. They certainly will be important for the world to see. That said, man’s justification before God is found in Christ, and Christ’s servants are eager to forgive persons and give them full access to heaven by simply trusting in God’s absolving word.

    That, I believe, would work with Augustine – but I don’t think you can make Aquinas say that.


  9. infanttheology

    March 13, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    …by the way, I’m really done for the day now. : )



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