I have greatly enjoyed this post and first wish to affirm you in your task of trying to correctly understand the reformers. The debate on the NPP touches on many different arenas of scholarship of which historical theology happens to be one of the most affected and rightly so. For when we see that certain themes of what the gospel is (such the gospel being the declaration of Jesus’ Messiahship) was already there in Luther and Calvin, then when we approach NPP proponents the issue of “see what’s wrong with them” dissolves. As a result what we are left with is: What does the Bible have to say on the matter? In other words, such clarity moves us closer to Scripture and reframes the debate. I would love to have more of your thoughts on the similarities of the reformed thinks and the NPP. Also you should read Dr. Bird’s discussion on the matter in his book The Saving Righteousness of God, 67-69.
A good friend of mine, who will possibly be starting his own blog soon (look forward to reading it, Nick), has responded to my thoughts on the NPP. I have not read a lot of Michael Bird, but the bit that I have read has impressed me, he is a good and very active scholar. So even though I haven’t read The Saving Righteousness of God I’m including Nick’s recommendation here for a good scholarly overview of some of these issues. Nick and I have had many a debate about this topic which I have always enjoyed. In the spirit of that friendly discourse and of academic dialogue, here are a couple segments of his lengthy (and witty/entertaining/Seinfeld informed) response and some rejoinders:
This brings me to the real issue of the matter and the pivotal objection conservative Evangelicals have against the NPP: How is a righteous God going to save or justify an ungodly and unrighteous person?
Again let’s interact with the OT picture here. However, let me first respond to another statement you have made concerning the OT and salvation:
“There is no hypothetical offer of Salvation in the Old Testament. Perfectly obeying the law does not result in salvation. From the perspective of the Old Testament, the law is given to those who already have Salvation! The rescued people of Israel, formed into a covenant as God’s chosen people, are given the law to set them apart from the rest of the world, to maintain their status as God’s people.”
You’re right on the mark concerning the point that salvation was not received through one’s obedience to the law (a type of hypothetical view which I firmly reject and would agree with Wright here, and it is quite lovely of you to reject such a view as well), but rather that one could never perfectly obey it. I think you must read how the narratives of the OT are showing you this theology. The point of the Law and Deuteromistic theology was not what one could achieve or who a person was, but rather that one was incapable of doing so. Yes the law along with other ritualistic and ethical markers did set the Jewish people apart, but this was not its main force and purpose. I will say that there is some elements of Deuteromistic history and theology (Deut. 28) that would say do this and be blessed, do this and be clobbered ( kind of a merit theology). However, following Paul’s encouragement that we should read the OT in its entire flow we get a much different picture. How does Deuteronomy end? With Moses not getting into the land. How revolting are the last few chapters of Judges? Then we come to the kings. Saul had a lot of promise but how well did he and the nation end up? Yes, David was a man after God’s own heart; however, he comments adultery and murder and thus I wonder what kind of man he would have been like if he wasn’t a man after God’s own heart…right? Then a few centuries later the Davidic dynasty has ended with a puppet king on the throne and the majority of the people in exile. Therefore, what we see from the force and focus of the OT narrative history of Israel is not a history and theology which gives one the impression that if you’re only good enough and faithful then you’ll receive God’s blessings, and sometimes we make it and sometimes we don’t, but rather much closer and accurate to the way Paul reads it: The Law multiplies transgressions and teaches us how much of a dirty rotten bunch of sinners we are, and therefore highlighting how much we are in need of grace.
In other words, the Law shows us who we are in light of who God is, and therefore our only hope of gaining blessing and avoiding cursing is not by our own merit but by the gracious and atoning work of Christ. I feel that if we are to correctly understand what the OT is saying about our inability to please God on our own, then what Christ has done for us on the cross has enabled us to do so. In other words, if there is judgment associated with sinful humanity apart from grace, then there must be some appeasement associated with Christ’s death and resurrection. We must in some way be seen in Christ (See Rom 4-6).
I feel like this is slipping back into the dispensational reading. If the point of the law is to show us that we can’t keep the law, then it seems very difficult to say that keeping the law would not result in salvation, in other words, that a hypothetical offer does exist in the law. I don’t feel like this is a reading of the OT on its own terms, it’s a reading through the lens of a particular reading of Paul (and thus you end up back in Romans in your interpretation of the Torah).
To address two themes of the Torah that are touched on here that might shed some light (or not) on this:
First, the blessing and cursing language. We need to keep the logic of the covenant in mind, here. The covenant starts off with a statement recalling (from the past) God’s saving work for the people (their liberation from Egypt). Then they are given the law which they are to obey as God’s Covenant People. Then they are told that if they obey this law they will be blessed and if not they will be cursed. The idea is that the obedience of the law pertains to the maintenance of the Covenant, not its creation. Now with this logic in the background, we can move toward Paul. Paul, when he speaks about human sinfulness, is generally quoting from the prophets or the Psalms and is thus reflecting the historical “working out” of the covenant that was made in the Torah. In reality, the people did not keep the covenant, and thus they end up in exile. And so the prophets and Psalmists make statements like “every one of them is sinful” describing their unfaithfulness and their deserving of the punishment brought on them. Paul picks up that language to describe the human condition. But notice, especially in Romans, the logic of Paul’s own thought. He begins by critiquing Gentile idolatry. Then he critiques the Jews for their own idolatry (coming straight out of the prophets, but applying it to the Hellenism of his own day) and concludes that neither Jew not Gentile is in covenant with God and thus Christ must establish a new Covenant for all humanity.
Second, the idea of “earning” or “deserving” salvation. There are repeated statements in Deuteronomy that what has been done/is being done for the people is not because they in any way deserve it because they are just a stiff-necked, obstinate people. Seemingly, that plays right into the “traditional” reading of Paul’s reading of the OT. But it’s a proof text if we stop there because every single one of these statements continues on with “but God made a promise to your ancestors and he is fulfilling it through you.” Which clouds up the traditional reading of Paul’s reading a good bit: did the ancestors deserve this? A straightforward reading of the OT seems to suggest that they did… So were they righteous on their own account? Well… Genesis kinda makes it sound that way. So if we want to uphold the traditional reading of Paul’s reading, we start having to do some tricky exegesis of Genesis. Or, my suggestion, is that we re-read Paul in light of what we read in Genesis and the rest of the Torah, this covenant model I’ve been outlining, and then I think we have good deal less conflict in our interpretations (but we might have to adjust our Reformed theology a little bit).
I would like to end my comments with a question for you to responsd to or write about in the future: How does God save the ungodly? This of course brings us to the issues related to the NPP and their view on what justification means (is it as you stated that you are in the covenantal people group?) and also their view of imputation. I would greatly enjoy to hear your responses to what I’ve said above, and your answers to the questions that I have asked you. Thank you for all the hard work that went into such a post.
I’m not sure how specific of an answer you are looking for or how specific of one I can give. But in general terms, my understanding is based on a kind of narrative reading of scripture. Humanity, meant to image God, to represent God, has in general rejected God’s commands and brought a curse upon itself. I say in general because we have stories like that of Enoch and Noah and Abraham which seem go against the pattern. Recognizing that a Calvinist can interpret those stories in a way that fits into their schema, I think that goes against the grain of the narrative, so at least for now that tendency needs to be put to the side.
So in general, humanity has rejected God. God sets out to redeem humanity. My understanding is that this redemption does not just involve an imputing of grace so that we sinful people are pardoned and able to enter the heavenly court, though I think covering grace probably is part of the picture. Full redemption, however, is something that I think involves a restoring of us to be people who are in a covenant relationship with God. In other words, it involves a substantive change or transformation in our own character, in our present lives. That seems to be the pattern of redemption in the OT- Its not just that Noah is saved from the flood, its that creation is restarted with Noah, a righteous man; the covenant between God and Israel at Sinai doesn’t just establish that they worship God, it sets them apart as a people who are different from other people in noticeable ways; the prophets aren’t just looking for forgiveness, they want the nation to come back from exile and a just, God-honoring kingdom to be established. So redemption is a process that affects more than just our status on a divine judicial ledger, its also a process of internal transformation of who we are and how we relate to our world. I think, which you will probably be in disagreement with, that this transformation has to take a synergistic form, that it is the result of both God working in us and of us cooperating with and reaching out to God. Ultimately, this leads to my understanding of a very tight bond between faith and obedience, making the two terms almost synonymous (but not quite).
I’m intentionally avoiding using the term “justification.” That term I think relates to a legal metaphor for this process of which other metaphors also exist in the New Testament. Each of these metaphors is helpful, but I want to resist the urge to exalt one over all the others (though if pressed, I do rather like the Christus Victor motif). I’m also resisting the idea of an “order of salvation” which is so loved in the Reformed Tradition. I think that system develops from a canon within the canon reading of Paul, which you might gather that I would be very resistant to. I think Paul is helpful, but only if we understand him in light of the stuff that comes before him, not the other way around. Starting from Paul and creating a somewhat artificial system that we then squeeze the rest of the Bible into is, in my view, very bad exegesis. So for both of those reasons I’m not sure I’m really answering the question on the terms you want an answer, but that’s what I got.