The “New Perspective” and Orthodoxy, 1 of 6

In a recent essay I mentioned that in my opinion “the new perspective” on justification by faith had implications for Orthodoxy, if we would take it seriously. At the time I was asked to expand that thought but I’ve been hesitant because Orthodoxy doesn’t seem to take kindly to critiques from outsiders, especially Protestants. The “new perspective” is a Protestant endeavor, so I wanted to get my ducks all in a row in order to make it more convenient for my Orthodox readers to shoot them down. 🙂

As a reminder, the new perspective is an interpretation of justification by faith defended by N.T. Wright especially and also his colleague at Durham University, James Dunn. The new perspective on justification was called for because of the radical changes in assumptions brought about by “the new perspective on Second Temple Judaism” (that is the Judaism in the day of Jesus and the early church) that was proposed back in the 70s by E.P. Sanders.

I generally wouldn’t get too excited about the latest Protestant theological proposal, except that Sanders’ new perspective on Second Temple Judaism argues for what Orthodoxy has claimed all along. And in turn, the Protestant claim that the doctrine of justification by faith is the cornerstone and primary lens through which the whole doctrine of salvation has to be viewed is one of its most significant departures from classical Christian theology, and thus, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to ecumenical dialog.

But Wright’s careful historical and exegetical work on the doctrine of justification not only critiques Protestant assumptions, it also speaks to Orthodox assumptions (although Wright seems serenely unaware of Orthodoxy in his work). One of the things I’ve been working on since the initial essay is reading Wright’s and Dunn’s critics (sadly insubstantial and rather predictable) as well as studying up on what Orthodox writers have to say about justification. What has become clear is that Orthodoxy doesn’t have a well developed doctrine of justification by faith. It is treated thoroughly as one of the several descriptors of salvation. In contemporary writings it tends to be treated dismissively as a Protestant innovation. The fathers’ exegesis is something that would warm the hearts of most Reformed theologians, although they would give the Lutherans some heart burn. But beyond these basics, very little thought has been given to the doctrine of justification by faith within Orthodoxy.

In a similar vein, Wright argues that the doctrine of justification by faith should take a back seat to St. Paul’s broader and more fundamental description of salvation. Paul’s core doctrine of salvation, according to Wright, is really no different than the Johannine approach (this is essentially the Roman Catholic and Orthodox view, but a significant departure for a Protestant). He observes that when Paul talks about salvation, he talks far more about being “in Christ” and “in the Spirit” or “filled with the Spirit” than he does about justification by faith, which is in the context of a more specialized discussion, not about salvation in general, but about how different “saved” people ought to relate. Furthermore, the “in Christ” motif appears in every Pauline work where justification is a far more limited doctrine. Thus, if you want to understand Paul’s soteriology, you have to focus on the “in Christ” motif.

Justification by faith, on the other hand, is “the great ecumenical doctrine,” according to Wright. Paul uses the justification motif in Galatians (and later in Romans) to deal with the Gentile problem. Jews were the people of God, and Jewish Christians continued to follow the requirements of the Jewish Law, because they assumed that this is how one remained faithful to God. This included following the cleanliness laws, which required separation from unclean things. The Gentile problem occured at this intersection. Gentile Christians, who didn’t follow the works of the Law (ie, becoming people of the covenant through circumcision, dietary restrictions, and cleanliness rituals) remained unclean. Therefore, the natural instinct of Jewish Christians was to separate from them, including when they were at table.

Paul argued that this separation was antithetical to the meaning of fellowship. He also argued that requiring Gentile Christians to practice the works of the Law was antithetical to the Gospel itself. In other words, “the Gentile problem” was not a problem with the Gentiles but rather a problem with the Jewish understanding of salvation. So it is at this intersection that Paul offers the doctrine of justification by faith as a means of explaining why Jewish Christians ought to accept Gentile Christians at table as they are. Paul argued that the only criteria for table fellowship was that all Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, was receiving God’s grace (that is, justification) by faith. Any other rules to determine table fellowship contradicted the gospel, according to Paul.

Wright observes that this line of argument says far more about ecumenical relationships among Christians than it says about how salvation is accomplished. Justification is not a description of how salvation occurs; it is rather a statement that salvation is God’s decision, and not ours to make. The significance of the doctrine is not, therefore, in what salvation means, but rather, what the basic requirements for table fellowship are.

Now that question is an interesting can of worms that requires more than just a simple answer. Because of that, I will continue this subject in the next several essays.

8 thoughts on “The “New Perspective” and Orthodoxy, 1 of 6

  1. I’m looking forward to this series, though I have a feeling that I’d have to read NT directly to be able to deal with what precisely he means and what precisely he intends to follow from his work.

    The problem here is that Orthodox don’t like the typical rhetoric around “Justification by Faith”, because it answers of a bunch of wrong questions. There is no “developed” theology because it’s a dead end that adds nothing to the testimony of the Church as to who Christ was and the implications of His identity.

    I can play along here like this:

    For the Orthodox there is a Jewish problem. For 2000 years the definition of Christian was member-of-the-Church. Non-Orthodox are coming to the Orthodox and claiming (like St Paul to the Council of Jerusalem) that the Spirit is moving “among the Gentiles”. But for the Church “where the Spirit is” is defined as moving in the Church and so they cannot accept the implications. The first Christians thought that people would have to become Jews to be Christian. So the Church should consider the Protestant claims.

    The breakdown occurs at this crucial moment, just before I start sounding like a ecumenically liberal fella. 🙂

    The reason why this analogy fails is that the Protestants claiming to come to the table by faith, don’t even know what the table is. If those Protestants don’t hold to the same implications of Christ’s identity and therefor live differently than the Orthodox understand how can there be communion? For example, the table is “life in Christ” not a “get out of hell free” card.

    Exactly what would communion be with so little in common but the reverence for a portion of the canon which the Protestants largely misunderstand? What would this “common table” look like?

    When we reduce Christianity to essential propositions and ignore the existential aspects we gain more trouble than we solve.

    Christianity in this sense isn’t the accepting of an intellectual proposition (even the Creeds!). Just saying Jesus is “the Christ” (whatever that means) and “the Son of God” (how many differing ways that’s been interpreted) and that we are “saved by faith” is no different than what a demon could do. The Orthodox call this the theology of demons. Christianity primarily is a way of living that has at its core the person of Christ. It testifies in living not in theological treatise (though the Orthodox can crank those out with the best of them).

    If non-Orthodox are willing to live as the Orthodox understand Christianity to look like, then there is no problem, they will be Orthodox. If they aren’t then there isn’t any bridge, there isn’t any common table, just a mirage.

    We aren’t allowed to accept those who hold to a different Gospel. God loves Protestants. I know because I was one. I’m sure God knows what is best and looks after them (the woman at the well, St Photina, claimed that even dogs get crumbs). But I don’t worry about them myself, I have my own salvation and that of my family to worry about; and that needs working out in the faith preserved among the Orthodox, as I understand it, the Church.

    Still looking forward to the series, promise. 🙂

  2. justanotherjim

    I appreciate your post and I mostly agree with you. You are indeed correct that the typical rhetoric around justification is simply wrong-headed. I probably didn’t make the point clearly enough, but I am also of the opinion that good theology shouldn’t spend too much time on the subject of justification precisely because it is a special topic.

    I won’t try to respond to everything you say, but I do want to respond to one assumption you make in particular. You said

    The reason why this analogy fails is that the Protestants claiming to come to the table by faith, don’t even know what the table is. If those Protestants don’t hold to the same implications of Christ’s identity and therefor live differently than the Orthodox understand how can there be communion? For example, the table is life in Christ not a get out of hell free card.

    The mainline Presbyterian Church confessional documents say that Christ is really and truly present — the bread is Body and the wine Blood. Lutherans and Roman Catholics find the Presbyterian stance suspect because they don’t define how it happens. In response, Presbyterians say that we don’t know how it happens, simply that it occurs in heaven, which in the liturgy is here among us. Just because they refuse to define the process does not mean they don’t believe in it.

    Note that this is the same stance (on these two points) that the Orthodox Church has. Although Orthodox folk will sometimes use the word “transubstantiation,” it is foreign to Orthodox thought. The Eucharist is a mystery and cannot be defined. It is also a heavenly event rather than an earthly one. In this Orthodox and Reformed theology are similar and both contrast to Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism, which place the action on earth and try to define how it happens (consubstantiation and transubstantiation).

    Now, it must be said that a great many Presbyterians don’t believe it. But it is in the confessional documents and that, in my opinion, is how one must judge the various Protestant communions. I get into this conundrum at more length in the 5th (I think) essay.

  3. justanotherjim

    And another thing — different subject so I’ll put it in a separate note — the biggest problem with Wright’s thesis has nothing to do with what Protestants do and don’t believe nor about all the generalizations (sometimes to the point of being silly) certain Orthodox people make about Protestants.

    I think the big problem is Wright’s assumption that Gal. 2 is about the Eucharist. I suspect it’s actually about the Agape and not the Eucharist. My hunch is that he would say the two are inseparable at this stage, and the two Corinthian letters might support him. But I believe that if the story he tells about Peter and the Jerusalem delegation are about the Agape meal and not the Eucharist, it’s pretty hard to make a strong case that this has to do with Eucharistic theology, and if that’s the case it’s very difficult to support the claim that justification by faith is the great ecumenical theological proposition.

  4. You make a good point about Orthodox generalizations. And simply taking shots at the inconsistent testimony of Protestants isn’t really fair. In that sense I went too far. But calling for confessional documents brings up different problems.

    While some of those documents help, some hurt and the people that wrote them and confess to them think of them as inter-dependent on one another. I still contend that if one respects those who confess those documents a rereading of them which is more favorable to a common table is violence.

    I don’t know about Gal 2. I’ll have to study that.

  5. Mark

    You claim that the BoC of the PC(USA) claims a realist version of the sacraments. I need to keep you honest on that one. Not the Westminster Confession. Granted the older confessions do, but the BoC is mixed on its theology which gives clergy and elders a lot of wiggle room.


    1. justanotherjim

      (For all you uninitiated out there, Mark’s reference to the BoC is the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA). It is what I referred to more generically as the confessional documents.)

      Ah yes, Westminster: the Presbyterian’s moment to bow before and embrace the Enlightenment; it’s Rationalism all dressed up in Christian clothes.

      But as it was taught to me in seminary, Westminster was an historical aberration away from the realism that under-girded Reformed theology before and after that. So I accept your point, Mark, but stand by my claim.

      I think Mark’s point is what you were getting at also, David, when you talked about being faithful to the tradition vs doing violence to the tradition.

      I’m not going to try to defend whether I’ve done violence to the tradition. I will observe that this discussion points to some of the profoundly different understandings of just what the core of the Reformed tradition is. This is the focus of the upcoming fifth essay in this series, btw.

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