Justified, the new book from Modern Reformation, will be available for purchase the week of November 15th. If you’re going to the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Atlanta, Georgia (November 17-19), you can get some of the very first copies available by stopping by the White Horse Inn booth in the exhibit hall.
Next week, we’ll post an excerpt from Mike Horton’s chapter, “Engaging N. T. Wright and John Piper” (click here for the table of contents). This week, we’re posting an excerpt of the Introduction, “Getting Perspective,” by Dr. Ryan Glomsrud, the executive editor of Modern Reformation.
The five “solas” of the Reformation were at one time the consensus of Protestantism. Converging in the doctrine of justification, we are saved by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) because of Christ alone (solus Christus) all for God’s glory alone (soli Deo Gloria), a message of good news that is revealed to us in Scripture alone (sola scriptura). Over the past number of years, unfortunately, evangelicals have been divided on these otherwise unifying truths, tending to associate what was once the lifeblood of the evangelical movement with merely “getting saved.” While some evangelicals, including many teachers and high-profile pastors, have directly attacked the old Protestant consensus, undermining specifically the doctrine of justification, other rank-and-file believers have simply come to believe that there should be a different emphasis in evangelical media on personal and social renewal, or on the transformative aspect of salvation—namely, sanctification—rather than the declarative aspect—God’s justification of the ungodly. Being reckoned righteous in Christ is for many a mere preface to the central message of the need to become more Christ-like, a trend moving in the direction of spirituality and discipleship. And finally, there are self-identified evangelicals who have never even heard of the “solas” of the Reformation, much less the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that is the crux of justification. Whether rejected outright, neglected, or simply unknown, it is evident that the gospel as traditionally understood has fallen on hard times.
Over the past thirty years debates over the doctrine of justification, though quieter than other controversies, have nonetheless been many and varied. There is no one history to which Modern Reformation can draw your attention. Suffice it to say, Wright, James Dunn, and E. P. Sanders (representative of the New Perspective on Paul) are not the cause of the present controversy. Rather, they represent at best a contemporaneous phenomenon that has in some ways galvanized evangelicals who were already conflicted over how to understand both the big-picture interpretation of the Bible, otherwise called biblical theology, as well as crucial exegetical details—in particular the scriptural teaching on law, justification, righteousness, faith, and the nature of God’s interaction with his people in the time of Abraham and Moses. In the end, it matters little if we can pinpoint whether the slow rise of justification debates occurred before or at the same time as the New Perspective. The point is that similar debates have been playing out among Christian college Bible faculties, on evangelical seminary campuses, in some of the more purportedly “doctrinaire” denominations, and even at meetings (past and present) of the Evangelical Theological Society, mostly without reference to Wright or the disparate group of scholars working on Second Temple Judaism and the interpretation of the New Testament. It is therefore important to gain a proper perspective on our current situation. In these selections from Modern Reformation, a combination of new and classic articles, we want to present a few catalyzing arguments that have the potential to move forward what we think is a stalled debate in evangelicalism and the wider world of New Testament studies.
Leaving Dispensationalism Behind
There is a great deal of complexity to the history of evangelical theology, more than can possibly be summed up in a brief introduction. Among the various factors we could call to mind, the emergence of a post-dispensationalist evangelical academy is one that is not typically acknowledged. Classic premillennial dispensationalism, as many will know, had a unique way of carving up the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation, and is still without question a very popular way of interpreting the Bible among laity. But with the flourishing of “neo-evangelical” institutions such as Christian colleges, seminaries, and publishing companies over the past thirty years, dispensationalism has slowly retreated from dominance among the teachers and scholars who labor to train the next generation of leaders. In its place, there has been an emphasis on the unity of the biblical story. This effort amounted to an attempt to flatten the contours of redemptive history and shave off the rough edges of the starkly delimited covenant “dispensations” known to previous generations. Without necessarily revising evangelical eschatology or end-times views, evangelicals now predominantly identify one story of “grace” from beginning to end. One is tempted to explain this shift in terms of “lumping” and “splitting,” general categories that are sometimes helpful in getting one’s bearings. For better or worse, the overcoming of dispensationalism’s exegetical “splitting” or compartmentalizing of redemptive history into seven relatively discrete and non-overlapping covenants has given way to a new “lumping” mentality, or what some of the authors in this volume will refer to as “mono-” or “one-covenantalism,” which essentially groups together God’s successive redemptive acts into one large, reductionist covenant. Where the old dispensational consensus identified difference in a transition from law to grace, post-dispensational evangelicals recognize mostly (and sometimes exclusively) unity in a movement of uninterrupted grace.
In this evangelical shift, several crucial Reformation themes—some of which never sat very well with dispensationalists either—have become more and more controversial. If the accent in evangelical biblical theology is no longer on the contrast between works and grace, old and new, as understood by various Reformation Protestants, then traditional distinctions between law and gospel, faithfulness and faith, and Moses and Abraham have also fallen by the wayside. Because of the predominance of evangelical mono-covenantalism of various kinds, Reformation perspectives are now at the periphery of the most recent justification debate, and even defenders of justification neglect the full range of the early Protestant tradition’s biblical-theological resources. Two general points are worth elaboration before introducing the contributions of this volume.
The In-House Debate
The current debate has every appearance of being centered on those scholars working from a post-dispensationalist set of presuppositions. In fact, one is tempted to construe the in-house evangelical debate over justification as a conflict between those who are working to hash out the details of this move to highlight the unity of the Bible.
Here one thinks especially of the legacy of Daniel P. Fuller, son of the cofounder of Fuller Seminary, former professor of the same from 1953 to 1993, and teacher of several generations of biblical scholars who now work at a variety of evangelical institutions. Others could be cited and influence is difficult to trace, but there is widespread agreement among Fuller’s “students,” loosely understood, on a number of key issues. 1) It is assumed that the Reformation distinction between law and gospel somehow smacks of older dispensationalism and therefore cannot (and should not) be reconciled with a post-dispensationalist narrative of “grace” and continuity. 2) It follows that the Reformation understanding of grace must surely have been slightly antinomian or insufficiently concerned with the need to obey the law or pursue sanctification and holy living; in other words, the Reformation is frequently caricatured as having relegated or pushed faithfulness and obedience to an obsolete “law” covenant, leaving a deficit in evangelical preaching of exhortations to keep the law. 3) Further, it is sometimes said that the Reformation understanding of faith was similarly one-sided in emphasis—in this case “intellectualist” or insufficiently personal because it allegedly did not include the renovation of moral behavior. These are simply part of the air that is breathed in our post-dispensationalist context, and in fact most of these claims were either stated explicitly or indirectly hinted at in two of Fuller’s books: first his Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum: The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, and then the summation of his life’s teaching in The Unity of the Bible: Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity. Addressing the doctrine of justification, Fuller concluded that in light of his redrawing of the covenantal map and revision of these key issues, one should be ready to affirm that “justification depends on persevering faith” or faithfulness. This view is now widespread in evangelicalism and shares much in common with Wright’s interpretation of biblical teaching on salvation without having been learned from him directly.
The justification debate has not fallen along Arminian versus Calvinist lines, as it might have in the past, for many of Fuller’s heirs are in fact restlessly “Calvinist.” That is, they are drawn to the theme of God’s sovereignty over all things and are eager to explain the doctrine of perseverance in grace-centered or even “Augustinian” terms. Many post-dispensationalist exegetes are neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian, but frequently engage in discussions about whether to self-identify as four-, five-, six-, or even seven-point Calvinists! In fact, there have even been those within properly Reformed denominations who have taken up this discussion, such as Norman Shepherd (formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia). To the extent that Shepherd and other Reformed theologians attempted to integrate with evangelicalism and negotiate with older dispensationalist interpretations of the Bible, they made a corresponding attempt to weaken classic Reformed distinctions between the “covenant of works” and the “covenant of grace.”
The Missing Element
Fortunately, many evangelicals have ably defended the doctrine of imputation, the great double exchange whereby our sins are reckoned to Christ on the cross and his righteousness is accounted to us that we might have life (2 Cor. 5:21). This double imputation is the very essence of the Protestant understanding of justification. However, not all imputational schemes have been set in the context of the Reformation tradition’s fully developed biblical theology, a fact that owes much to the emergence of the mono-covenantalism I have been describing. What many post-dispensationalist theologians share in common, therefore, including the “Calvinists”—and in fact what Piper shares in common with Wright—is what they are missing, namely, an extended engagement with classic covenant theology. There are genuine exegetical insights available in this Reformation tradition, especially when it comes to negotiating continuity and discontinuity in the history of redemption. Going forward in a discussion sometimes requires looking back in order to discern what was missing at the outset. In our context today, we could benefit from returning to the tradition probably least thought of as holding any hope for the resolution of the justification debate: the Reformation tradition. And yet, that is the aim of this volume. In these pages we bring together Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist theologians and biblical scholars who are able to unpack Reformational perspectives for thoughtful nonspecialists.