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Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul Paperback – May 7, 2006
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About the Author
Venema is Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Dyer, Indiana. He gained his doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary for work on the theology of John Calvin and has served as a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in Ontario, California, and South Holland, Illinois.
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So when another Systematic Theologian comes out with a critique of the New Perspective on Paul, we can almost instinctively fear that it will simply be an attempt to absolutize doctrinal formulations from the past without paying any attention to the Biblical arguments that are being advanced. We would certainly be justified in such a reaction unless the Systematic Theologian in question was Cornelis Venema.
First, Dr. Venema did his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary studying John Calvin. The sample is too small to be statistically significant, but I have noticed that men who do their doctoral work on Calvin tend to be more responsible Theologians than those who did their work on some obscure Puritan. For another illustration of this observation, consider Peter Lillback whose work The Binding of God is well worth reading. I'm not sure if this reflects the type of men who gravitate toward studying Calvin or if spending three to four years immersed in Calvin's work helps shape the theological mind in this way. In any case, if you know someone going off to do Ph.D. work in theology - remember that friends don't let friends pretend that a dead Puritan was the last word on doctrinal development.
Second, Dr. Venema is a first rate exegete. It should go without saying that Systematic Theologians should be attempting to build their theology from close fresh readings of Scripture. It should go without saying, but sadly it can't. Increasingly Reformed Systematic Theologians seem to view the Bible as a group of texts that illustrate rather than govern their theology. Dr. Venema stands in the nobler line that values the Reformed Tradition precisely because it helps us in the higher goal of understanding and applying the Scriptures more effectively in our own day and age.
With Getting the Gospel Right our hopes are not disappointed.
This is the simplified and shortened version (92 pages) of a forthcoming 300 page treatment that is also to be published by the Banner of Truth. This means that evaluating many of the exegetical details of Dr. Venema's arguments must await the future publication. Nevertheless, there is much to commend in this shorter book written for a popular audience:
1. The book is crystal clear in its presentation. The reader can always be sure of what Dr. Venema is arguing for and why.
2. Getting the Gospel Right focuses far more on a positive presentation of the Biblical material than it does on critique. The book is divided into three parts: (i). Explaining the traditional Reformed view of Justification; (ii). Explaining some key aspects of challenges to the traditional view presented by the New Perspective on Paul; and (iii). Critiquing the New Perspective on Paul and defending the traditional Reformed formulations. Even when Dr. Venema is critiquing his interlocutors he is clearly focused on a positive presentation of the Biblical material. This represents a very wise choice that will facilitate the building up of the Church rather than contributing to a laity who condemns the New Perspective on Paul without really knowing what it is.
3. Dr. Venema has digested a vast amount of scholarship in the preparation of this book and he takes great care in how he represents those he disagrees with. Conservative Presbyterian Pastors who have read the source material are likely to completely agree with his assessment and critique of Sanders and Dunn while having some reservations about his critique of Wright (for example, I believe that the doctrine of Justification is more central to Wright's thinking than Dr. Venema implies. As an aside, I believe that Bishop Wright's unusually polite mode of discourse facilitates a misunderstanding of him at times. Wright is often busily saying nice things about the people he is interacting with while simultaneously completely dismantling their positions. For example, consider The New Testament and the People of God or The Meaning of Jesus. So when we take Wright's very nice statements about Sanders and Dunn at face value, it is easy to miss how thoroughly he critiques both of these men and just how much distance there is between their various theological projects). The least that can be said in favor of Getting the Gospel Right is that Dr. Venema is obviously attempting to portray Sanders, Dunn, and Wright accurately - and, in my judgment, he largely succeeds.
The one item that appears to be a meaningful slip in the book (I need to re-read Wright to make sure that I am recalling his views correctly) comes when Dr. Venema condemns Bishop Wright's handling of "final justification". It seems to me (four of the most dangerous words in theology) that Dr. Venema is using the term "justification" in a technical manner while Bishop Wright is using the term in a non-technical manner, and that this is what accounts for much of their differences at this point. What is ironic is that I could easily imagine Bishop Wright nodding his assent to so much of Dr. Venema's presentation regarding both "initial justification" and "final judgment". As I am a munchkin evaluating two giants - please keep in mind that my assessment is the one most likely to be wrong.
So while I don't believe Getting the Gospel Right is a perfect study on the subject, it is certainly a very good book.
If someone told me that they were beginning to look at the New Perspective on Paul, I would tell them that Getting the Gospel Right is the first book that they should read. Of course, I would encourage seminary students and Church Officers to read the primary sources (particularly Bishop Wright) for themselves. Nevertheless, a clear and accurate introduction that exhibits a high level of theological acumen on a level that beginners can grasp is a valuable aid to learning. For the New Perspective on Paul, Getting the Gospel Right is that book.
"Getting the Gospel Right" is clear and cogent. Using 92 small pages, Dr. Venema clearly lays out the basics of the Reformation doctrine of justification: by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone in chapter 2.
He then clearly lays out the key players in the so-called "New Perspective(s) on Paul in chapter 3, with a section each on E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright. He cleary and accurately expresses the heart of their views: Sanders (the Judaism of Paul's day was "gracious" as a person was brought into the covenant by grace, but stayed in by obedience), Dunn (Paul's critique of Judaism's "works of the law" was not about individual salvation but about ethjnic identity), and Wright (justification is not about how sinners stand before a holy God, but about who is a part of the covenant people). Venema done this with clear quotations from these writers' own pens.
Dr. Venema then cleart and cogenty reponds to each of these writers and their views, arguing that the classic doctrine of justification and the Reformation's reading of Paul is most accurate: Sanders' work has been over-exagerated and he has not considered that a "get in by grace, stay in by works" religion *is* a semi-Pelagian, works-based religion that he says Judaism was not; Dunn's argument fails becuse Paul in Romans says the works of the Law cannot be performed by us; and Wright's doctrine falls because Paul uses "the righteousness of God" to describe what God is as well as what he gives, whether to justify sinners or condemn sinners.
Why is this importnat for elders in the church? Because elders are charged with ruling Christ's Church. One of the main ways they do this is by guarding purity of doctrine from the pulpit and lectern. Dr. Venema was done a masterful job of summarizing the issues surrounding the "New Perspective(s)" and shown why every elder needs to know what this is, so that they can rightfully protect the people of God from error, and even worse, heresy.