Do you understand the new perspective on Paul? This is a common question these days. Perhaps, however, a more important question is, do you understand the old perspective on Paul?
Debate abounds today in Protestant circles over the doctrines of justification, law and grace, particularly as they are found in the writings of the apostle Paul. In this confused milieu, Cornelis Venema’s The gospel of free acceptance in Christ is an attempt to provide some guidance.
The author sets out: (1) to summarise the traditional Protestant teaching on justification; (2) to explain the challenge to this consensus coming from the ‘new perspective on Paul’ (NPP); and (3) to critically evaluate the NPP from both biblical and theological standpoints.
Along the way, Venema addresses important questions in connection with historical and current debates over justification – such as the relationship of Paul to James and the meaning of key terms in the apostle’s writings (e.g. ‘works of the law’, ‘righteousness of God’ and ‘justification’).
He also discusses biblical evidence for imputation and the relationship between present justification and final judgement. On all these points Venema concludes that the Reformation perspective best reflects the biblical evidence.
Venema is to be commended for his fairness in summarising the teaching of the main proponents of the NPP (Sanders, Dunn, and Wright) and for the measured tone of his criticisms.
Another strength is the effort Venema makes to go behind the exegetical questions associated with the NPP to the hermeneutical principles that seem to drive it – including the expressed desire of some NPP proponents to create ecumenical opportunities with their ‘fresh’ readings of Paul.
Some might complain that the book is too short, or perhaps overly simplistic, especially in its presentation of NPP views. But the author’s purpose is not to be exhaustive in his summary and critique, but to provide a helpful non-technical resource on the contents and comparative merits of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ perspectives on Paul – thereby enabling us to understand both perspectives better. He achieves that purpose admirably.
If you want one book on the NPP this is a fine choice. If you want more, then numerous citations in Venema’s footnotes provide pointers to further reading.