Category Archives: Theology

The Idiot’s Guide to the New Perspective on Paul

It is difficult to find a brief layman’s explanation of the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). To rectify the problem I humbly offer “The Idiot’s Guide to the New Perspective on Paul” (myself being the idiot). Comments welcome! I posted something similar to this a while back on an Arminian group discussion, so this may be a repeat for a few.

An Analogy:
Imagine a church that has the following rule: EVERYONE WHO ATTENDS THIS CHURCH MUST WEAR A SUIT. The church has the rule to keep out the bums, reasoning that bums can’t afford suits.

The people in the church know very well that wearing a suit in and of itself doesn’t make one a Christian. They simply have the requirement for the purpose of excluding others who are not like them. They want the church for themselves, and want to keeps the bums out.

In this analogy the root problem is that the Christians want to exclude others. There is nothing inherently wrong with someone wanting to wear a suit. The problem is that they are using their preference for suits as an arbitrary rule to exclude others.

New Perspective Explained:
Among Protestant circles, Paul’s writings have generally been interpreted as a criticism of legalism (the suit in the analogy). NPP argues that Paul’s writings are instead a criticism of exclusivism (keeping the bums out).

NPP points out that during Paul’s ministry the Jewish Christians were reluctant to accept Gentiles as fellow believers. The Jews often acted in ways to prevent the inclusion of others. One way that this manifested itself was by the demand that the Gentiles follow detailed adherence to the OT law. The law was used as a way of excluding others.

NPP argues that the Jewish Christians knew that salvation came by grace through faith. Or put another way, they did not believe that following the law would save them in and of itself. NPP argues that root problem was that the Jewish Christians wanted to keep Christianity exclusive to themselves. Thus, Paul’s criticism of works should be interpreted in this light.

In short, NPP proponents argue that:
1) The Jewish Christians knew that salvation was by grace through faith, and that following the law didn’t merit salvation.
2) The Jewish Christians were using the law as grounds to exclude Gentiles from fellowship.
3) Paul’s beef was with the exclusion, not with those who wanted to obey the law.

Why does this matter today?
A key component of Protestant theology is that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works (Eph 2:8-9). During the Reformation, Luther and others appealed to Paul’s criticism of works in order to point out some of the severe abuses of the Roman Catholic church.

If Paul’s primary concern was exclusivism rather than works, some think that this could undermine the scriptural justification for the Reformation. Exclusivism is a different problem than works based salvation.

My Take:
I personally believe that NPP has some merits. But I also believe that the traditional Protestant view does as well. I think that both exclusivism and works salvation were addressed in the scope of Paul’s writing. I also believe that both of these views can co-exists along side each other without conflict, and in fact compliment each other.

How does this relate to the Arminian / Calvinist debate?
It is often the case that Arminians are more open to NPP. Calvinists tend to be more critical of it, though this is not always the case. John Piper is a strong critic of NPP, while NT Wright is a proponent. Both are Calvinists. I personally see no reason why Arminians or Calvinists must reject NPP, as it has little to say about the definition of election or the scope of the atonement. As mentioned earlier, it does touch on certain aspects of Reformational thought, however, this is not in and of itself a good reason to reject the theory.

Further reading on NPP

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Theology and the Slave Trade

I was recently reading the blog Ancient Christian Defender. The author Jnorm888 had a provocative post entitled Was Jonathan Edwards a racist?

It is a well known fact that Edwards was a proponent of slavery, and owned slaves himself. Unlike many contemporary slave owners, Edwards did not will freedom to his slaves upon his death. Due to Edward’s position on slavery, there is some division in the African American community today on whether or not he is a person worthy of being honored.

Jnorm’s post triggered some questions in my mind: Did the Calvinistic assumptions of Edward’s theology contribute to his support of slavery? How did prominent Calvinists of the era approach the issue slavery, and how did prominent Arminians address the issue? Was there a difference in their approaches?

I think a difference can be demonstrated. In short, Calvinists of the era were more likely to support the institution slavery, and Arminians of the era were more likely to support abolitionism. For example (Calvinists) Edwards and Whitfield both supported slavery, while (non-Calvinists) Wesley, Asbury, Wilberforce, and Finney all advocated abolishing slavery.

There were some notable exceptions to the examples above – John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”) was a Calvinist and also an abolitionist. And over time many Calvinists joined the abolitionist movement. In fact Jonathan Edwards Jr fought against slavery. However, it is noteworthy that many of “trail blazing” abolitionists were from Non-Calvinist backgrounds, and argued against slavery using Arminian theological concepts.

When one looks at the two theological systems, this makes sense. Calvinists focus on the sovereignty of God. Part of that focus is a belief that the world is the way it is because God wants it that way. Thus on the issue of slavery a Calvinist might reasonably argue that slavery is ordained by God and gives Him glory.

Arminians focus on the love of God for all. God cares about each and every person. Each person is of great value, because he is created in the image of God. Thus on the issue of slavery one would expect an Arminian to advocate for the freedom of all, because every person is valuable, and every person is loved by God.

We see this Arminian heart in the abolitionist writings of John Wesley. Notice how he used Arminian concepts of God to advocate on behalf of the slave (bold mine):

O thou God of love, thou who art loving to every man, and- whose mercy is over all thy works; thou who art the Father of the spirits of all flesh, and who art rich in mercy unto all; thou who hast mingled of one blood all the nations upon earth; have compassion upon these outcasts of men, who are trodden down as dung upon the earth! Arise, and help these that have no helper, whose blood is spilt upon the ground like water! Are not these also the work of thine own hands, the purchase of thy Son’s blood? Stir them up to cry unto thee in the land of their captivity; and let their complaint come up before thee; let it enter into thy ears! Make even those that lead them away captive to pity them, and turn their captivity as the rivers in the south. O burst thou all their chains in sunder; more especially the chains of their sins! Thou Saviour of all, make them free, that they may be free indeed!
(Thoughts upon slavery, 1774)

Notice how Wesley’s arguments against slavery flow directly from his Arminian understanding of God:

  • God is love
  • God has mercy on all
  • Jesus “purchased” slaves with his blood
  • Jesus is Savior of all
  • Jesus wants us to be free

Arminian Theology is more friendly to the cause of the downtrodden, and Wesley demonstrates why here. God loves us. We all have value because we are made in the image of God. Jesus died for all. We ought to be free. These assumptions impact how we treat others.

This Arminian friendliness to the downtrodden seems to apply to other issues as well. We can see differing approaches in Calvinist/Arminian theology regarding:

  • the value of women
  • compassion for the poor
  • love for the homosexual
  • the death penalty
  • prison reform
  • reasons for going to war
  • the treatment of “heretics”
  • race issues

There is even a recent example on the issue of race: Apartheid. Apartheid in South Africa is a clear example where Calvinist theology was used as a method to promote racial division. Between 1652 to 1835 a large number of European Calvinists settled in South Africa. They became known as “Afrikaners” or “Boers”. They imposed Apartheid upon South Africa, and used their Calvinist theology to justify it. Apartheid was not dismantled until 1994, and then only after great pressure from the international community.

It is my firm belief that Arminian Theology is more friendly to the state of the lost and downtrodden.

May God continue to give us compassion for all. Let us be the salt of the earth. May the world see in our lives the light of Jesus, and praise our Father in heaven. May our understanding of God be a help and hope to the world, instead of a hindrance.

Links of interest:

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Filed under Calvinism, history, John Wesley, slave trade, Theology

Dutch Chocolate, and two ways to read the Bible

There are (at least) two ways to read the Bible. The first way is a typical “Western” way of learning. The Bible is read in a systematically analytical method. The second way is to read it with personal reflection – with the heart, and then prayerfully ask God to speak through his word. Both ways, I believe, are needed. I think though that I overemphasize the first method, and then don’t allow God to speak to me through his word.

Here is a neat example of the second method, as taught by Corrie ten Boom (account found online):

The story is told of the time Corrie Ten Boom was to speak to a group of theologians after the war. She first passed out Dutch chocolate to each person there – a real treat in those days. After they had eaten it she said, “No one said anything about the chocolate.” Someone protested that they had indeed thanked her for it. She replied, “I meant that none of you asked me how much sugar was in it. Or what kind of chocolate it was. Or the order in which the ingredients were added together. Or the temperature of the mix. Or where it was made. You just took it and ate it.” Someone in the audience replied, “And it was excellent.” Corrie Ten Boom then continued holding up her Bible, “And in the same way you should read this! Stop analyzing it or you will never be nourished. Pick it up and read the Word of God!

More Corrie ten Boom links:

Common Sense not needed.

Audio from a few of her chats (SermonIndex.net)

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