Friday, May 7, 2010

NT Wright v RC Sproul

The latest edition of Tabletalk Magazine features an array of theological heavyweights taking aim at NT Wright and his new perspective on Paul (ok, I know NT Wright is not the originator, but he is the one gaining traction). I discovered this only after writing my recent series on "NT Wright v the Gospel". It serves as strong confirmation that NT Wright's writings and teachings are gaining a substantial corrupting foothold in the wider "church community".

When it comes to reformed theology, the authority of Scripture, and the purity of the Gospel, RC Sproul would be at the top end of the heavyweights. Some of his books, including "The Holiness of God" are classic landmark Christian literature. For decades Sproul has been an ardent contender for the once for all delivered faith. So it was with great interest that I read his response to NT Wright and the "new perspective". Sproul harnesses years of experience and biblical awareness to cut through the fog of Wright's assertion that he can do a better job of explaining the Apostle Paul than the Apostle himself (that's my cheeky paraphrase anyway). What follows is RC Sproul's response:

Tilting at Scarecrows
by R.C. Sproul
“We are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. We are justified by faith by believing in the gospel itself—in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.”
(N.T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul,” p 261)

In the past few years, the British bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has emerged as an icon of biblical theology around the world. His excellent work on the resurrection of Christ has influenced many people including his own country’s most famous philosopher and former atheist Antony Flew, who has converted to deism. Wright is also known, however, for being one of the chief architects of the so-called new perspective on Paul, in which he recasts the doctrine of justification in such a way as to transcend the historic dispute between Roman Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism. In a sense, Wright says, “A pox on both your houses,” claiming that both Rome and the Reformation misunderstood and distorted the biblical view of justification. In his response to John Piper’s critique of his work, Wright drips patronizing disdain for Piper and for those who embrace the traditional Protestant view of justification. He is critical of theological traditions that he thinks miss the biblical point.

In the course of debate, one of the most effective and fallacious arguments often used is called the “straw man” fallacy. The value of a scarecrow is that it is a counterfeit human being designed to scare away a few crows. It is an effective device, but not nearly as effective as a real farmer patrolling his fields with a shotgun. The farmer made of straw is not nearly as formidable as the real one. This is usually the case in the difference between the authentic and the counterfeit. The straw man fallacy occurs when one creates a false view of his opponent’s position in a distorted caricature by which he then easily dismantles that position in total refutation.

One of the statements that N.T. Wright employs, using this same stratagem, is the statement that “we are not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith.” To intimate that Protestant orthodoxy believes that we are justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith is the king of all straw men. It is the Goliath of scarecrows, the King Kong of straw man fallacies. In other words, it is a whopper. I am aware of no theologian in the history of the Reformed tradition who believes or argues that a person can be justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith. This is a pure and simple distortion of the Reformed tradition.

In Wright’s statement we see a straw man argument that falls by its own weight. It contains more straw than the stick figure can support. The doctrine of justification by faith alone not only does not teach that justification is by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but in fact, teaches that which is totally antithetical to the idea. The phrase “justification by faith alone” is theological shorthand for saying justification is by Christ alone. Anyone who understands and advocates the doctrine of justification by faith alone knows that the focal point is that which justifies — trust in Christ and not trust in a doctrine.

One of the key terms in the phrase “justification by faith” is the word by, which signals that faith is the means or tool that links us to Christ and His benefits. The concept indicates that faith is the “instrumental” cause of our justification. What is in view in the Protestant formulation is a distinction from the Roman Catholic view of the instrumental cause. Rome declares the sacrament of baptism in the first instance and penance in the second instance to be the instrumental causes of justification. So the dispute of what instrument is the basis by which we are justified was and remains critical to the classical dispute between Rome and Protestantism. The Protestant view, following Paul’s teaching in the New Testament, is that faith is the sole instrument by which we are linked to Christ.

Closely related to this is the hotly disputed issue of the grounds of our justification before God. Here is where the biblical concept of imputation is so important. Those who deny imputation as the grounds of our justification declare it to be a legal fiction, a miscarriage of justice, or even a manifestation of cosmic child abuse. Yet at the same time, it is the biblical explanation for the ground of our redemption. No biblical text more clearly teaches this concept of transfer or imputation than that of Isaiah 53, which the New Testament church singled out as a crucial prophetic explanation of the drama of redemption. The New Testament declares Christ to be our righteousness, and it is precisely our confidence in the righteousness of Christ as the grounds for our justification that is the focus of the doctrine of justification by faith. We understand that believing the doctrine of sola fide will save no one. Faith in a doctrine is not enough to save. However, though we cannot be saved by believing in the doctrine of justification, the denial of that same doctrine can indeed be fatal because to deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone as the apostle Paul indicated in Galatians is to reject the gospel and substitute something else for it, which would result in what Paul declares to be anathema. The gospel is too important to be dismissed by tilting at scarecrows.

Go Back To NT Wright v The Gospel


Shawn said...

Hi Cameron

I heard of you from WoTM a long time back.

I just wanted to thank you for such clear posts on NT Wright.

It is a situation that is really frsutrating me at the minute.

Is it possible to link all your reference points please as I am busy preparing a item to submit to our minister to get him to stop using him as a bible study aid.

Thank you in advance


Anonymous said...

You seem to spend a lot of time pointing fingers at others. Jesus spent the majority of his time on earth ministering to lost people--not judging the theology of anyone around him.

Maybe there is a much better use for your time than constantly blogging about how everyone else is wrong.

The world is already at war. And the church doesn't need help in further dividing itself.

Go love someone instead.

tobekiwi said...

Have you ever read Matthew chapter 23?
Please read the entire chapter and then tell me if Jesus didn't judge the theology of anyone.
Also, read Matthew chapter 7. Jesus warned about false prophets in sheep's clothing. There are many people on the wide road to destruction, and that path isn't marked hell, it's marked heaven.
You have to know the truth before you can believe it. Speaking God's truth (and contending for it) is the most loving thing anyone can do.
Thanks Cameron- enjoy your posts!

Derek said...

Here is a quote by R.C. Sproul in his latest work on on Justification:

"Since the Reformation the doctrine of sola fide has been the defining doctrine of evangelical Christianity. It has functioned as a normative doctrine because it has been understood as essential to the gospel itself. Without sola fide one does not have the gospel; and without the gospel one does not have the Christian faith. When an ecclesiastical communion rejects sola fide, as Rome did at the Council of Trent, it ceases being a true church, no matter how orthodox it may be in other matters." - Justification by Faith Alone (2010) p.12

In the quote above Sproul writes: "I am aware of no theologian in the history of the Reformed tradition who believes or argues that a person can be justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith." Perhaps he should look in the mirror!

If Wrights arugement is a strawmen then Sproul is a scarecrow caught up in 16th century polemics.

Cameron Buettel said...

Derek, what is your problem with Sproul's quote? Maybe you are not reading him carefully enough. Wright is being "clever" with his phrasing "believing in the doctrine of justification by faith". When God saved me I was unaware of the doctrine of justification. But I was fully aware that salvation is God's gift to those who trust Him in faith completely apart from any human works. Wright continually muddies this crystal clear biblical truth. God is not the author of confusion, but maybe NT Wright is a strong candidate!

Derek said...

Cameron, there is nothing "muddled" about the statement that we are Justified by

"believing in the gospel itself—in other words, that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead".

Wright's point is that people are justified by believing in the gospel, not in a Reformed Doctrine of "sola fide". Sproul accuses Wright of setting up a "king of all staw man" argument in this. But is he really?

Herein is my problem with the quote: Nothing! I love it because in it he affirms exactly the point which N.T. Wright makes against. That in order to be a "true church" you need to affirm the Reformed doctrine of Sola Fide! But you might say I'm not reading him closely enough because elsewhere (as in this present article) Sproul will vehemently deny such a thing. But all that proves is that he wants his cake and to eat it too. (Talk about the author of confusion!?!)

You'd have to be a blind-fan of Sproul to uncritically accept this double talk. No offence intented, I just don't buy what he's selling!

(I'll explain more fully in an upcoming post)

Kurt Willems said...

Derek's rebuttal was excellent! Have you read it yet? I think some of my reformed friends may be in need of a new reformation of their own theology. The bottom line is that Sproul holds to a 16th century tradition and Wright is attempting to discern the tradition of the first century historical Apostle Paul.

Blessings bro!