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From the Seminaries to the Pews

The 'new perspective on Paul' gets the popular treatment.

Seminary is not reality. That much became obvious to me the moment I met my classmates and began looking over syllabi for classes on Greek, Hebrew, missions, and biblical theology. No congregational ministry can replicate the time seminary affords for intense focus on technical but important matters of theology. Professors toss around fascinating innovations and insights. Students, though often downtrodden by the gravity and complexity of their tasks, suddenly shine as they behold great truths about God.

The average churchgoer will never have the time or inclination to focus on theology. Even in our most rigorous churches, the cares of this world interfere. Perhaps an encounter with a seminary graduate has convinced them that theology belongs to arrogant eggheads. As a result, what seems so important in seminary produces blank stares in the pews.

For evangelicals—Christians committed to a high view of Scripture—this is a discouraging scenario. More than that, it's dangerous. Christian colleges and seminaries can grow detached from the churches they serve. Hazardous ideas can percolate for decades without so much as a nod from most churchgoers. And parents wonder why their undergraduate daughter or seminary son graduates with odd ideas about everything. So they blame the theologians and the cycle continues.

But what if they knew more about current debates? What if someone could direct them toward resources that would help them think theologically about current events? I hope that in some small way, this column might help those of you who want to care about theology but lack the time to skim blogs. Maybe you'd consider attending a conference if you only knew when or where to go. You might even read the occasional book if someone explained why it's important. As I draw on the help of scholars and friends, I hope this column will become a destination for you to catch what you might have missed in the last two weeks and discern what you otherwise might not have foreseen.

Not-So-New Perspective

The "new perspective on Paul" is nothing new. But it has the feel of a hot topic these days. That should be no surprise, as the new perspective touches on justification, the crux of the Reformation and a key to the Protestant view of salvation. New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole introduced and critiqued the new perspective in a recent cover story for Christianity Today. He offers this brief definition: "In particular, the new perspective investigates the problem Paul has with 'works' or 'works of the law.'" If by "works" the apostle Paul meant something other than moral behavior, then have Protestants promoted a false dichotomy between faith and works? Could Martin Luther's critique of the Roman Catholic Church have clouded and confused how Protestants read the New Testament?

Gathercole's list of recommended resources will help you decide for yourself if this new perspective deserves such attention. If the books intimidate you, prolific blogger and New Testament scholar Scot McKnight will take you on a whirlwind tour. As always, McKnight's Jesus Creed site includes vigorous debate in the comments section. A study committee for the Presbyterian Church in American recently investigated the new perspective and found it to be inconsistent with the Reformed creeds. The study group had its share of critics, who considered its outcome predetermined due to the committee selection process.

As if the great justification debate hasn't attracted enough attention, expect John Piper's critique of N.T. Wright to cover new ground. Scheduled for release in late October, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright should be most beneficial because Wright read the manuscript and responded to Piper. According to Piper, the interaction with Wright doubled the book's length.

Name recognition alone should guarantee widespread interest in Piper's critique. Scholar-pastor Wright and pastor-scholar Piper have popularized theology among many young evangelicals. Indeed, the book's singular focus on Wright testifies to the influence of the Anglican bishop of Durham. And because Piper considers the debate to be of crucial importance, so will many of his followers. How will the contours change now that the debate has broken out of the seminaries and into the churches?

Here's what I find odd about the current swell of interest in the new perspective. You won't hear the same concern from leading evangelical scholars in seminaries and colleges. Those who endorse the new perspective consider these insights to be assumed for biblical studies. Critics seem rather satisfied with the spate of books that have taken the new perspective to task. They have moved on to the next big thing, whatever that might be. I suspect they will need to re-engage now that the debate has finally escaped their domain.

Quick Takes

Ben Witherington explores the culture of Michael Vick.

Verse for the Fortnight

"For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." (Romans 3:28)

Collin Hansen is a CT editor-at-large.

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