Ferguson’s Critique of the New Perspective

Over a year ago now, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson provided a critique of the so-called "New Perspective on Paul:

1. It tends to argue against "straw men." EP Sanders discounts ancient preaching (failing to realize that preaching is highly indicative of one’s thelogy), especially when it counters his thesis. Ferguson sees Chaim Potok’s novels as providing an example of how "deeply orthodox Jews" do take ergov nomou as being expressed in personal righteousness. Here grace is expressed in the first person (ie, "we") and not the third person (ie, "God"). There is a similar dynamic, Ferguson says, in the NT (and the OT) when "grace is no longer grace." The Reformers never attack the Roman church for being Pelagian ("We are saved by our works") but for being semi-Pelagian ("God’s grace has come to us because we have done our dead-level best in our attempts to be righteous.") Modern orthodox Judaism is like this, and modern orthodox Judaism is also like first century Judaism in this regard. [Weak point overall, partly b/c SF is not doing any exegesis here but drawing on a couple of highly questionable analogies (b/t modern & ancient judaism, and b/t modern Judaism & 16th century Roman Catholics).]

2. Teaching that Paul is without pre-conversion guilt is an exegetical mistake. It is perspicuous, on even a surface level reading of Phil 3 that Paul is not saying he was blameless before his conversion, but rather that he was in the same position as the rich young ruler (a self-righteous prig to whom it is impossible to imagine Jesus’ heart going out, as it does to others in the Gospel narratives) of Jesus’ parable in Lk 15. [Weak point.] In Wright’s exposition of Rom 7, it is not referring to Paul at all, but rather to Israel. In this way background becomes foreground. [Strong point.]

3. It is wrong to see Romans exclusively as a kind of theodicy as opposed to an exposition of salvation. [Weak point: NTW does not limit Romans to dealing with Israel’s problem; also, there is a semantic disagreement going on here precisely on the meaning of the word "salvation:" SF is taking it to be something individual, and, again, soteriological, whereas NTW is going to see it as much bigger than that: having to do with Israel, the church, and the world. The question which SF begs is precisely: What is "salvation?" What does it mean?]

4. "Works of the law" cannot be reduced simply or in all instances to the boundary markers of kosher, circumcision, and sabbath. [Not sure what to think of this. Frankly, I don’t think that NTW wants simply to reduce them down to that. Rather, for him they are telling or indicative of the redemptive-historical shift (fulfilment) that has occurred in the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom. Also he would say that one cannot separate the vertical from the horizontal, so that boundary markers (a "horizontal" thing) are actually extremely relevant to our relationship with God (a "vertical" thing). I would add that the ability to hold the "horizontal" and the "vertical" together in the way in which an orthodox version of the new perspective holds them together does require a fundamental commitment to sacramentality, in which the "phenomenological" or material world (human bodies, wine, bread, etc.) communicates the divine.]

5. Justification cannot be "transformed into ecclesiology." In Paul’s mind the main problem is not exclusion from the community but rather exclusion from God as a result of his wrath. (See CH Dodd on the wrath of God.) [The point about God’s wrath might be a strong point. Regarding justification as being about ecclesiology and not soteriology, I actually tend to see all of theology as being under ecclesiology, not just justification or even just soteriology.]

6. The new perspective is naive with respect to the history of theology. It is somehow telling that the NPP emerged from within the academy and not from within the church, "where the key issue is: ‘how are we to be saved from the wrath of God?’" [seems like he is repeating a previous point here about the wrath of God, and not really showing how NPP is naive w.r.t. the history of theology.]

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