Arthur J. Fox
The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, by Cornelius P. Venema. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006, v + 337 pages, $28.00.
Cornelis P. Venema's The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, which he describes on the cover as, "An assessment of the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul," is a fuller presentation of material he had previously presented in Getting the Gospel Right (from the same publisher). In light of the fact that the New Perspective on Paul is currently being disseminated in many academic circles and, more seriously, in some seminaries, there can be no more important book for the student of theology or the average pastor than this one.
The author is clearly committed to the Reformational perspective on Paul. This is made abundantly clear throughout the book. But what is especially satisfying about Venema's treatment is his ability to make the complexities of the New Perspective simple and then effectively counter the teachings of the heresy.
Dr. Venema divides the content into three parts: The Reformation Perspective on Paul, A New Perspective on Paul, and A Critical Assessment of the New Perspective on Paul.
In the first part Venema simply presents the basic truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. He begins by assessing the biblical and theological discussions of the last ten years between the Roman Catholic Church and various leaders who took it upon themselves to represent the Evangelical Church at large. He then shows why the New Perspective is attractive to those in the church who are ecumenically minded: "The new perspective seeks to engage the biblical texts unencumbered by the inheritances of the past…One of its special features is an emphasis upon justification as a unifying theme." (11).
He also demonstrates the difference between Rome and the Reformation on justification, namely, "Though the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged the priority of God's grace in Christ for justification," it also taught, "that the believer must co-operate with God's grace by obeying the commandments of God, and in so doing merit further or increased justification" (13). In contrast to this, the reformers taught "a sharp distinction between the law and the gospel, so far as the believer's acceptance with God is concerned" (13). Christ is received by faith alone. Works play no part. But the new perspective, says Venema, abandons the past (i.e., the theological conclusions of the Reformers based on their study of the Scriptures) and seeks to present "a new, and therefore unbiased, reading of the biblical and Pauline texts" (15). The conclusion reached by advocates of the New Perspective is that the Reformers misunderstood Paul.
We can be briefer regarding the second part, The Reformation Perspective on Paul. The readers of this journal know what the Reformers taught. Venema very carefully gives the biblical, theological, and confessional (Westminster and Continental) data that prove the doctrine of justification held by the Reformers. Faith is the "means or instrument by which the righteousness of God is received" (51).
Venema sets forth the key features of the Reformation's perspective: Justification answers the question of how guilty sinners find acceptance with God (54). "Justification is primarily a theological and soteriological theme" (54). Roman Catholic doctrine on this subject compromised the gospel by emphasizing merit. For the Reformers, "works of the law," as Paul wrote of them, were acts of obedience that would be wrongly regarded as the basis for acceptance with God. Finally, "the Reformation perspective viewed the righteousness of God, which is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, as something that God freely grants and imputes to believers" (55).
Part three critically assesses the New Perspective on Paul by setting forth its main themes, as taught by its three main proponents, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, and Canon N. T. Wright.
Their teaching is basically as follows: they insist Paul was not countering legalism in contemporary Judaism—it did not exist! Rather, the Judaism of Paul's day was a religion of grace, described by Sanders as "covenantal nomism." The question Paul was really interested in was how to tell who was or was not in the covenant. What Paul really opposed was the Jewish exclusivism that denied the Gentiles a part in the covenant. They maintain the Jews insisted on certain "boundary markers" (e.g., circumcision or feast day observances) as that which distinguished them from the Gentiles. Justification addresses, then, the question of how to identify those who are a part of God's covenant family, and the conclusion Paul came to, it is said, is that faith in Christ is the only boundary marker that matters. What the New Perspective proponents fail to do is set forth the connection between justification and Christ's atoning work. In the process, the righteousness of God is redefined to mean the faithfulness of God to his covenant promises. Faith is no longer an instrument by means of which believers receive the benefit of free justification on the basis of the work of Christ. It is instead just a badge to show they are "in" the family.
At their worst some New Perspective authors teach that the final justification of believers on judgment day will be dependent upon "the quality of the whole life of faith" (305). Venema notes that there is not a clear consensus among New Perspective writers on this.
Venema does believe that there are useful things presented by the New Perspective writers. For example, it takes a fresh look at Paul. But in the end, he concludes that the New Perspective on Paul fails to deliver on its promise to give a more satisfying interpretation of Paul.
There is an extensive bibliography in the book, and I would prefer that footnotes were used rather than notes at the end of each chapter. But that is my only complaint. This book is, on the whole, a welcome addition to what needs to be a growing body of literature that opposes the New Perspective. The report of the OPC's Committee on Justification was a good start. Venema seals the deal.
This book is lucid and avoids being so technical that it discourages the reader. The average layman can read it with profit if he or she is willing to read slowly and carefully. Thoughtful readers will come away with a clear understanding of the doctrinal dangers inherent in the New Perspective on Paul.
I began the book feeling rather ignorant of what the New Perspective taught. I felt much more fully informed when I was done reading it. It should be required reading for any minister or seminary student. Pastors should also read it with the intention of warning the congregations they serve about aspects of the New Perspective that are out of accord with scripture and our doctrinal standards (best done in the context of sermons on the subject of justification or the danger of false teaching).
Arthur J. Fox
Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church