Thrum and thrill: a brief reflection on ETS 2010

ETS 2010 (meeting in Atlanta) is now history. Like other years, there were some great papers (I think of the four papers on Thursday morning on American history by Peter Beck, Donald Macleod, Paige Patterson, and Greg Wills) and some not so good (one speaker—maybe more—did not show, a real disappointment, as I was looking forward to the paper), rich conversations and fellowship with brothers, and superb plenary sessions. This year the topic was justification, and saw Tom Wright, Tom Schreiner (a colleague at SBTS), and Frank Thielman speak to this issue. Wright was dynamic, witty, a great communicator—but in the final analysis and in the opinion of this author, wrong on the key issue. He was not so far wrong that his view did not have much appeal. And much he said resonated with many of us, I am sure: especially the emphasis on the Christian community and the appeal that he was on Calvin’s side as opposed to Luther when it came to the third use of the law. Before Tom Wright spoke, Tom Schreiner had delivered a well-crafted analysis of the issue and why Wright was wrong. At the end of the day I was struck by the fact that for Wright: Augustine’s failure to understand justification set the stage for the wrong directions of the Middle Ages, and hence the misguided response of the Reformers. He certainly favoured Calvin over Luther, but in the final analysis he remarked that history would have been so different if these two great Reformers had begun with Ephesians rather than Romans or Galatians. I was also deeply struck by his firm rejection of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The latter, though, is central to the gospel: without holiness no man shall see the Lord. If God be holy—holy beyond our conception—how can we envisage a salvation that does not involve being made as holy as Jesus? Also noted that Wright emphasized that no one he knew who had embraced his view had swum the Tiber—but I can think of a few—if not the Tiber, then the Hellespont!

It was over twenty years ago—around 1987 or 1988—that I first heard this view enunciated—in a joint faculty meeting between what was then Central Baptist Seminary and Toronto Baptist Seminary. And while I have a better understanding now of what the so-called New Perspective on Paul (NPP) entails, I am more than ever deeply convinced that it fails to capture the heart of the Apostle’s thought. To the advocates of the NPP the old perspective is mere dull thrumming, but for us it has lost none of its joyful thrill.