Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Skunk Doth Speakth

I have done my best to try to demonstrate that there are aspects of the "New Perspective of Paul" that those of the Reformed faith can appropriate without losing their way. I've also been critical of the New Perspective (if you don't believe me then ask Tom Wright or Jimmy Dunn who see me as a sympathetic critic). But I've recently learnt that much of this conversation is immensely futile.

Scott Clark has a blog entry on Can Reformed Theology and the NPP Be Synthesized? which links to Guy Waters' review of Dan Kirk's new book Unlocking Romans. I chimed in the comments to the effect that: "There are different ways of appropriating the NPP. The most promising is to recognize the horizontal aspects of justification which NPP interpreters have pointed out (though without reducing justification to a social epiphenomena as some NPP proponents can do). It is this aspect that has been neglected in post-Reformation dogmatics since Paul is just as much concerned with 'Who are the people of God?' as he is with 'What must I do to be saved?'. Whether ya like it or not, this is one aspect that we can learn from the NPP. I would add that Sanders’ participationist eschatology is far more likely to be the centre of Paul’s thought than the imputed righteousness of the active obedience of Jesus Christ in order to fulfil the covenant of works!" I thought that, that was a fairly straight foward comment stated in a cordial and generous way.

There was a response from the Rev. Gary Johnson (co-editor with Guy Waters of By Faith Alone: Answering the challenges to the Doctrine of Justification) which labels me, and this is classic, as a "sneaky, low-down skunk who embraced the NPP ... while stilling claiming to be Reformed". How does one respond to that?

I have genuinely tried to have a serious and gracious conversation with certain folks in the conservative Reformed wing about Pauline theology, but I am now led to believe that this is an exercise in futility. I trust, then, that my interaction in a forthcoming book by IVP with a bonafide Reformed scholar in Michael Horton will show how to have a fruitful and cordial discussion on these issues. I doubt whether I'll be able to convince Mike Horton (and vice-versa), but hopefully we can present a model of civilized and Christian conversation within the Reformed tradition to which we both belong.


Luke said...

This guy I believe spends his entire day looking for blogs about reformed theology and Westminster seminary so he can slander those who do not agree with either and herald his own publications and people he works with. His rhetoric has always disturbed me and is about the furthest thing from "Christian" that I could imagine. It is hard for me to believe how such an educated man can be so hateful and mean. He's embarrassing to all sides of Christianity (though he thinks only his side is the true "Christianity"), and he certainly hurts the reformed cause by behaving the way he does.

I say ignore the guy. He does this to everybody and does not deserve to be interacted with anymore. That any reputable scholar would want their name on a book with him is beyond my wildest dream.

Skjou said...


I've know for many years now that you are a sneaky, low-down skunk who embraced the NPP. :)

The maturity of this NP discussion (or as wright says--this is not a discussion anymore) really needs to brought out. I'm disappointed with the reformed end not giving an inch over to Paul's emphasis on justification's connection to being in Abraham's family, or the covenant or whatever you want to call it. This is not everything to justification, but it is--bottom line--very significant to Paul.

Regardless, your statement about Horizontal and vertical aspects to Paul's soteriology is as soft as you can say it. I don't see what the problem is.

metalepsis said...

That is what you get for trying to be a nice guy!

I love it when people talk about "table fellowship" and separation today.

read: rhetoric of superiority!

For what it is worth, you are always welcome to share your wine with me!

Steve T. said...

Heck, I'm Catholic and no one trashes each other like Catholics. Good luck. I love your writing. Makes good sense to me. Why does everyone have to believe that if you don't believe like they believe, then you are a low down sneaky skunk. Welcome to the skunk club. Friday night is indeed In Vino Veritas!

Tony Stiff said...

Did you reply to GJ that you've now switched over to blue and white instead of black and white. Skunk is a poor caricature of your current blog them look :) I guess GJ hasn't visited you in quite awhile.

But seriously Michael please don't give up on discoursing in a way where you're trying to speak to the tensions between NPP and Reformed Theology. You've been such a helpful, balanced voice!

Andrew Faris said...

Dr. Bird,

Jeff Bruce and I broadly reformed, and we think you're great...

Well, I only read your blog and haven't read your work on Paul yet (soon enough...). But Jeff's obviously read your work and he loves it, and we believe exactly the same thing about everything (seriously).

So by the transitive property, I like your Paul work. And I'm broadly Reformed and totally love imputed AND incorporated righteousness.

So there ya go...

Andrew Faris

Tyler said...

How does one respond?

Slap them in the face with a soggy fish.

Dave K said...

Whatever happens Michael, never get discouraged.

Nijay K. Gupta said...

Mike - maybe the real problem is that you are 'Reformed'. Now, as am Methodist, we have had no real problems with the NPP. Jimmy Dunn is Methodist. Morna Hooker is Methodist. EP Sanders taught at Duke - a Methodist (founded) institution. NT Wright - well he is an Anglican with Methodist theology. You are always welcome with us... :)

On a serious note, I am so sorry that you have had to bear such harsh comments. Paul (and Calvin, for that matter,) would be so disappointed with this friendly fire.

Also, skunks aren't really that sneaky.

Michael F. Bird said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm not discouraged, just exaserbated! Now I know why Paul quoted Isa 65.2 in Rom. 10.21!

Steve T - Vino Veritas indeed.

Tyler - sadly, I'm all out of soggy fish. I gave my last one to some Baptist guy in Washington.

Nijay - I could go Methodist if I could cite the methodonian creed: "Thank you Lord God that in your sovereignty you have solemnly decided not be sovereign" :-) Of course David deSilva does make it attractive and Hebrews 6 would be easier to deal with - but nah!

Michael said...

Dr. Bird,

I hope you don't get the impression that all Reformed are like Dr. Johnson and Dr. Clark. I am one who proabably agrees with the great majority of what they say but don't think that they display Christian charity and love very often when being polemical. I appreciate the way you interact with people's theological views and I hope this won't keep you from discussing and interacting with the best of Reformed theology (which is not found in some WTS-West professors).


Michael Lynch
Under Care in the OPC

Marty in Cambridge said...

Hey Mike,

FWIW, I think these new "confessional" Reformed guys don't understand that their modus operandi will actually drive people into the NPP (or the next thing they will attack) because the average thoughtful person will see that not everything in the NPP smells of sulfur.

They have swung the pendulum so far to one end, that (as history shows time and time again) there will be an equal and opposite reactionary swing in the other direction.

Until they are willing to be self-critical (Jesus did say to look in our own eye before we look into someone else's)and recognize that one can't convince people by simply appealing to a reformed confession, they will either (i) breed fanaticism (which we're seeing already) or (ii) drive people out of (their narrow) reformed tradition into the hands of their enemy.

Don Carson once told me that the PhD students he watched become liberal were those who had been either sheltered from, or been told that EVERYTHING is wrong, in the writings of liberals.

Hope you're resisting a thick Scottish accent dude, the Aussie twang is much better in controversy. :-)


Foolish Tar Heel said...

Mike Lynch,

Thanks for your comments. It is always good for me to hear someone such as yourself remind me that the GLWs and RSClark's of the world do not necessarily represent Reformdom. Having interacted with so many of their ilk, however, I often find myself developing an allergy to things Reformed, especially in North America. It seems too many people like them are established as the leaders and cultural-producers of the North American reformed world. This saddens me as the writings of numerous luminaries of the Reformed tradition(s) and the discipleship of a Reformed pastor have nurtured my relationship with Christ and His people greatly.

I hope and pray you will be like the Reformed pastor (and his family!) who discipled and loved me so well during the formative years of my relationship with Christ and His people…and not like so many that I have encountered in the PCA/OPC world. Spending recent years at WTS Philadelphia unfortunately provided me with a heavy dose of the poisonous sides of Reformedom, for whom being militantly polemically Reformed and “right” far outweighs in importance living out Christ (Who Is Truth) to others in actions as well as words.

Foolish Tar Heel said...

Marty in Cambridge,

I should probably get back to research, but I thought it fitting to take up something you said. You put your finger on an incredibly important point. The circle-the-wagons ways Reformed folk react to the NPP and attempt to inoculate people within their social formations contribute significantly to the growth of NPP influence among Reformed/Evangelicals. I would add that they also significantly aid in fostering frustration with Reformed theology and its leaders among many people.

If I may, I will copy most of an email I sent to Guy Waters that relates to your points (I have modified the wording in several places to make it easier to read in this context). I will not post or comment on his reply since he attached a note at the end of his email strongly requesting that it not be shared.


“Dr. Waters,

…For years I immersed myself in Reformed Systematic and Biblical Theology (yes, I was "that [nerdy] guy"). During the summer prior to starting at Westminster and my first semester there, I began reading Sanders, Dunn, Wright, Hays, etc. I had heard their work on Paul was catching in parts of the Reformed world and distorting important doctrines. I had read and listened to every Reformed (and evangelical) critique of them I could find and decided it was time to read them myself. Perhaps I would eventually be able to serve the church by explaining and critiquing them to friends, fellow seminary students, my church, etc.?

At this point something unexpected happened. Though I certainly disagreed with them on numerous points, to my dismay I found they did not say what I expected. The numerous Reformed ‘critiques’ I had read primed me for encountering certain terrible things in their writings. Upon reading them, however, I could not recognize them in their Reformed critiques. Sure, I noticed their work cut across some Reformed categories and doctrines. Nevertheless, the numerous Reformed critiques often failed to represent them accurately. This ranged from grossly erroneous claims about what Sanders, Dunn, Wright, etc., were saying, to obvious failures to engage these authors for what they were trying to say before subjecting them to critiques from categories and concerns foreign to them. For me this caused great concern and confusion. I felt I had nowhere to go for serious Reformed engagements and critiques of what Dunn, Wright, and Sanders, wrote about Paul and his environment. All the critiques blew away straw men, and not those authors themselves. While the critiques often seemed to offer cogent and rich theological analyses, they also all seemed somewhat irrelevant as they tended to miss the actual points and concerns of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright. Again, this is not to say I thought Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, were (in their great diversity) all correct. Rather, at the time it simply meant I could not find Reformed writings helpful for navigating these scholars in relation to the Reformed tradition I loved. For someone seeking to wrestle with Sanders, Dunn, Wright, Hays, etc., from a rich Reformed-Theological tradition, this was extremely disconcerting.

With this background in view, again, I eagerly awaited your book. I had heard you studied under Sanders and Hays. I looked forward to reading a Reformed treatment that engaged what these scholars actually said, along with the deep issues involved. As I had started reading various Early Jewish writings along with secondary literature orienting my readings (e.g., John J. Collins, George Nickelsburg, James Vanderkam, Michael Stone, etc.), I looked forward to your book helping me grapple with how the study of Early Judaism factored into a Reformed approach to Paul, and more generally, our Bible and theology.

You may be able to guess where this is going. Your book left me confused and disappointed. I want to put this as honestly as possible here. In just about every way I had looked forward to your book helping me, I found it positively unhelpful. Though I was still fairly new to reading the scholars in question (and Early Jewish and Pauline scholarship in general), it seemed quite obvious that you also had greatly misrepresented them. Furthermore, your discussion of how(if) studying Early Judaism might factor into a Reformed approach to the Bible and theology left me most baffled. If I recall correctly, you devoted a page to claiming that such study cannot contribute anything of significance because that would mean/create a priesthood of scholars (pp. 155-56; you preceded this with two pages of obscurantist analysis of hermeneutics and Early Jewish writings). Since then, as I have spent years continuing to study Paul, "Ancient Judaism," Early Christianity, and the Greco-Roman Hellenistic world (and, indeed, now am in a doctoral program studying these things) my disappointment with your book has, sadly, grown.

Ok, I feel like a real jerk writing all this. While introducing myself and 'shaking your hand' for the first time I have told you I strongly disagree with your signature book. I would like to think I intend this email to have a positive purpose. While I do not expect this email---or future ones for that matter---to change your mind, I do hope sharing some of my thoughts and experiences with your book might be helpful and/or illuminating. This is the reaction to your book of one particular person who had a good background in Reformed Theology and who was beginning to wrestle with Sanders, Dunn, Wright, Hays, Jewish literature, etc. I certainly appreciate the time(!), energy, and prayer, you invested for serving the Kingdom in writing Justification and the New Perspective on Paul. As I certainly disagree with many things Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, claim, I think books, articles, lectures, discussions, etc., that critically engage them remain valuable and edifying. Again, I just did not find such a helpful interaction in your book...” (End of email excerpt)


If I may connect the dots a bit more for this comment thread, reading Reformed scholars such as Waters (and others held up by Reformed folk) only strengthened my discontent with Reformed Theology and most North American Evangelical/Reformed scholarship. Waters serves as a prime example, both in his NPP book and his review of Kirk’s recent work. Time and again I found these people incapable of engaging in honest and rigorous historical and theoretically-conscious scholarship on the Bible. They even articulate explicit reasons why they should have “special rules” for how to read the Bible historically that differ from how one reads and studies other ancient documents for their historical meanings and functions. Furthermore, time and again I found them incapable of even interacting with such scholarship in reasonable and honest ways. For some reason Waters and others could not even represent others accurately, much less engage them on historical-scholarly terms for critique.

Instead, what passes as “serious academic scholarship” among many Evangelicals and Reformed amounts to self-affirming dialogues carried on between people who insulate themselves within various “safe” Confessional and publishing contexts. They write primarily for audiences of people who already agree with them and/or who operate within their broader social formations and do not know enough to see what is going on. The implicit (and explicit!) rules of the field prohibit any significant self-criticism. Seriously, these people disallow ahead-of-time the legitimacy of any approach to or reading of the Bible that could possibly contradict the “important” doctrines. Thus appeals to the Confession, inerrancy, etc. (read: Church Tradition!) function as hermeneutical grids and ultimate courts of appeal. This is the essence of a circular argument and/or begging-the-question. Of course, Van Tilian Reformed folk had an answer to this as well: “Of course we reason in a circle.” Apparently it is a good thing for one’s theology to be immune from criticism…even from the Bible.

Again, it was precisely interacting in this world for years and finding the “best and brightest” (i.e., Waters, Ligon-Duncan, Carson, Beale, etc.) constantly operating with these dynamics that convinced me of something very significant: I cannot operate in their varied Confessional-AmericanEvangelical fields and remain faithful to our Lord and his Bible. Their approaches preclude following God wherever he MIGHT take us in reading his Word. Related to this, their approaches preclude some very powerful, missional, and edifying challenges from our Lord through His Word that could greatly enrich us now! (for an example familiar to many here, see some of Mike Bird’s work on the rich “horizontal” aspects of Justification) Ironically, these folk who constantly harp on sola-Scriptura against supposed Roman-Catholic captivity to “tradition” are more captive to Tradition (and explicitly so!) than Rome might ever have been.

Getting back to Waters, reading his book was especially significant for me in this regard. Here was the great-hope of the Reformed world, who studied under Sanders and Hays. Unlike all the others, he would certainly be able to depict Sanders and NPP scholars accurately and to critique them soundly, exploring how Reformed folk should theologically-consciously interact with them. INSTEAD, Waters greatly disappointed. He seemed to provide even more proof that something about how these guys did Reformed Theology prohibited them from even being able to read and to assess other scholars honestly and accurately. Somehow their theology and practices undergirding their social-formations were so weak that they could not even handle accurate and honest portrayals of the arguments of others, much less actually engaging them and allowing them to challenge and to test us.

In this way, Marty from Cambridge, I experienced some of what you describe in your comment. I am by no means a “liberal” now, though GLW Johnson might disagree : ). Also, I still cherish much of Reformed Theology. I simply cannot in good conscience operate the way many of the gate-keepers of the North American Evangelical-Reformed world prescribe.

Wow, this is a long comment! Congrats to anyone who made it through.

Marty Foord said...

Dear Foolish Tar Heel,

Wow what a fascinating post! Thanks so much for recounting it all; it was very helpful indeed, and yes, your story is basically the point I was trying to make. In the Christian market place of ideas, there is no use covering up the truth because people will discover it eventually.

It comes downs ultimately to whether one trusts Scripture to be the final court of appeal. If one does there would be no need to misrepresent others or use excessive rhetoric as if somehow we can fix what is lacking in regard to Scripture's feebleness.

Thanks again bro and blessings in your research,


Rod said...

The comment in this post are unfortunate, but reminiscent of my experience with folks in the Reformed tradition (both of the liberal and conservative brand).

Erlend said...

Thanks Foolish Tar Heel, I enjoyed your post a lot.

Mich said...

Dr Bird,
As a layperson listening to the discussion between NPP and it's Reformed critics there are 2 kinds of Reformed critics:
1. Critics who see everything through Calvin and Luther spectacles and 'judge' accordingly

2. Critics who embrase the Reformed methodology--sola sriptura--and engage the NPP in fruitfull discussion

Critics in group 1 tend to attack the man, and critics in group 2 tend to at least try to address the argument.

Ironically, I believe Bishop Wright pointed out all his arguments are grounded in scriptural exegesis following the Reformers method of sola scriptura, then he's attacked by critics claiming--that's not what Calvin said!

I enjoy your blod immensely.

Do you have plans to review Brondos' book on Paul and the atonement?

Gordon Kennedy said...

Dear Mike,
As one who has borne the slings and arrows from both sides in a far from united church (that would be the Church of Scotland) I share your exasperation. If only those who preached on grace, believed in grace and lived graciously.
The only thing to do is keeping studying scripture and sharing your helpful thoughts with us.

Foolish Tar Heel said...

Erlend and Marty,

Thanks for your feedback. Also, sorry for how long the comment is.

Ahhh...back to work, again...

Bob said...

I think the heart of the issue is a spiritual one, which involves the role of civility, integrity and charity in Christian dialogue (both intra-faith and inter-faith). Jesus himself dealt with strong projection based upon theological categories foreign to his views (Mt 11:16-19). His opponents were willing to do whatever it took (even kill) for "the truth" (Mt. 5:22). When individuals leave these virtues at the door in order to "defend the Gospel" their actions bespeak an antinomianism foreign to their so-called "Reformed" view and, more importantly, the (true) Gospel.

"This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me."

Halden said...

I left a reply on the other thread. What petty cowardice on Gary's part.

Congratulations, Mike. That's a blog insult for the books.

Garrett said...

Hah! You should be proud. GJ once called me, in ever mature fashion, "poop." After that I realized I had better things to do with my time than engage children in discussion.

Matt said...

sounds like we need a "new perspective on Bird"!

B-U-R-L-Y said...

Off topic, "Dan Kirk" emphatically only goes by "Daniel Kirk". I tell you this so that you know he's the dude in the lion's den, not the tribe guy. And J.R. Daniel Kirk doesn't not go by "Captain James Kirk", even though he could and I think he should.