by Craig Branch

Apologetics can be a difficult and controversial task.  There is a sad but sometimes true quip stating, “If you have two apologists in the same church, you’ll have a church split.”

There should be no doubt though that the application of apologetics has an important and necessary function in God’s kingdom.  Apologetics is valuable for personal and corporate discernment, protection, and as a helpful tool in defending and advancing the truth claims of the gospel and the Christian worldview in the face of skepticism, doubt, and alien philosophies of men (2 Cor. 10:3-5; 1 Pet. 3:15; Jude 3-4; 2 Tim. 2:23-26; Eph. 5:11-13; Mat. 7: 15; 24:23-24).

But this process can be either constructive or divisive.  Certainly pointing out the difference between truth and error is constructive, especially if the error produces a harmful or fatal result.  Close attention and stern warnings are to be given about false teachers who “twist the Scriptures to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).  Paul even uses harsh words calling those who pervert and thus bring a false gospel, “dogs” and “evildoers” (Phil 3:2).  Jesus calls them “whitewashed tombs,” and “You serpents, you brood of vipers,” and “ravenous wolves in sheep clothing” (Mat. 23:27, 33; 7:15).

 

Correcting Errors in the Church?

But what about differences in doctrine among fellow Christians?  More specifically, what about errors and false teaching among fellow Christians who are not trying to deceive but are just in error?  Are they heretics?  What constitutes heresy anyway?  Is it simply any false teaching?  If John Shelby Spong is a heretic, is Benny Hinn?  What about Joyce Meyer and Kenneth Copeland?  Is Robert Schuller a heretic?  What about Calvinists or Arminians?  Perhaps we need to qualify the use of the word heresy.[i]  Perhaps “total” heresy should be differentiated from just heresy.  Perhaps a teaching needs to be almost universally rejected by the Church to be classified as heresy.

Author and theologian Michael Brown, one of the leaders of the controversial “Brownsville Revival” (who ended up leaving the movement) responded to a good number of vociferous apologists who were    critics of the revival.  He described them as those who “claim to have an exclusive corner on the truth,” and “are cynical and skeptical. . . more concerned with the outward forms and traditions rather than on the power of God, and of mercy, and compassion. . .dangerously denominational. . . [they] produce bondage rather than freedom…and [are] self righteous.”[ii]

Brown’s criticism can unfortunately be valid in some cases.  I can certainly resonate with Brown’s description of cynicism and skepticism, but many apologists are so passionate because they have seen first hand the devastation and results of spiritually harmed followers of deception and error.  While we do not have an “exclusive corner on the truth,” I do agree with Scripture that tells us that we can and should know truth (2 Tim 2:15; 4:1-4; 1 Tim. 4:1, 6-10; Acts 20:20, 27; Jn 8:31-32; Eph 4:17-24).  At the same time we must also be people of faith, believing that God is the One who sovereignly begins that good work in us and “will complete it” (Phil. 1:6).  But God uses means to bring about that completion and sometimes those means involve warnings and rebukes (2 Thes. 3:14-15; Rom. 15:14; Prov. 9:8; 2 Thes. 4:2; Titus 1:13).

Fortunately Brown balanced his criticism with “There is a place for bringing correction.  Exercising discernment is necessary.  Some things are wrong…[C]orrection brings life and improvement, and discernment produces growth and progress.  Both are motivated by love – for the Lord, for His people, and for those in error.”[iii]   Amen!

 

In This Issue

In this issue and the next issue of Areopagus Journal, we will be addressing controversial movements within the body of Christ.  You may not be familiar with some of these movements and controversies, but they are significant and are growing.

In our upcoming issue we will respond to the Emerging Church Movement, the New Apostolic Reformation Movement, Federal Vision, and the Church Growth Movement.  In the current issue we are describing and responding to a movement called “The New Perspective on Paul,” developed in recent years primarily by E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright.[iv]

The New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is significant for two reasons.  First, the Oxford scholar N.T. Wright is one of the most respected and influential evangelical theologians today.  Second, the NPP calls into question the centuries-old tradition of the Reformation regarding Paul’s view on the doctrine of justification.

Sanders and Wright teach that thorough studies of Second Temple Judaism (515 B.C. – 70 A.D.) reveal that Judaism did not adhere to a “works of the law” system of salvation.  Wright wrote, “The tradition of Pauline interpretation [initiated by the Reformation] has manufactured a false Paul by manufacturing a false Judaism for him to oppose.”[v]

In addition to Wrights’ support of Sanders’ view of Second Temple Judaism, he also agrees with Dunn that Paul’s disagreement with the Judaizers was not over works righteousness, but over a perverted nationalism.  He says that the Judaizer’s mistake was believing that God’s covenant promise extended only to Jews.  Most significantly, Wright and Dunn claim that justifying righteousness is not Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers, but it is a future pronouncement of God’s vindication based on both the work of Christ at the cross and the work of the Spirit in the believer.[vi]

In this Areopagus Journal, Guy Waters presents an overview of the movement in his article, “What Is the New Perspective on Paul?”  He contrasts the “Old Perspective” (the historical Protestant Reformation view) with the conclusions of the “New Perspective.”  Waters then presents the problems and the solutions to the claims and dilemmas of the New Perspective.

Our second article, “The Gospel and the New Perspective,” by Sam Waldron, takes up the issue of Sanders’ view on Second Temple Judaism and gives a clear exposition of Paul’s doctrine of justification in Romans.  Waldron shows that the proponents of the NPP fundamentally misunderstand both Second Temple Judaism and Paul’s confrontation with it.

The third article is by ARC staff member Brandon Robbins titled “Checkers on a Chess Board: A Response to the New Perspective on Paul.”  Unlike the other articles which focus on the potential threat that NPP poses to the gospel, Brandon points out several inconsistencies and confusions that plague the major theses of the NPP.

 

The Seriousness of the Threat

Is the NPP just a passing fad?  Or is it correct and will we have to apologize to Roman Catholicism?  Or is it only a shade wrong and therefore harmful because it muddies the water of the gospel? Or does it actually present a heretical “different gospel?”

As Christians we claim that the inspired, infallible and inerrant Bible reveals God’s truth (Deut. 29:29; Jn. 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:16; Ps.119:97-105).  Yet Bible scholars, Bible teachers, and students from many different denominations and traditions (even within the same denomination) differ on doctrines.  The doctrines range from significant to peripheral.  Yet they all claim to be based on the Bible.

For example, there are differing views on the end times – premillennialism vs. a – or postmillennialism, futurism vs. preterism, etc., differing views of church polity, mode and effect of baptism, the sacraments, cessation or continuation of the miraculous spiritual gifts, the place of tithing today, women’s role in the church, old earth/young earth creationism, predestination and free will, eternal security or loss of salvation, Christian mysticism, quietism or pietism in sanctification, the Christians role in politics, Christian environmentalism, just war or pacifism, apologetic methodology, worship styles, seeker sensitive churches or traditional – and all of these differing views are among evangelicals!  While some of these doctrines are more important than the others, they are not essential doctrines of saving faith.

Whereas it can be useful to truly listen to one another and to study and weigh the Scripture, “testing all things and holding fast to what is true” (1 Thes. 5:24), Christians can err in two ways.  First, we can exaggerate the importance of a particular doctrine making acceptance a criteria for fellowship, and second, to respond with a condemning, critical, even arrogant attitude when addressing the issues.

So Christians, and especially apologist, are left with a dilemma.  On the one hand, we are repeatedly commanded to love one another, and that “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35; see also 1 Jn. 3:11,23; 4:7-8).  One of the ways this love is manifested is described by Paul who says, “I appeal to you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and there be no divisions among you but that you be united in the same mind” (1 Cor. 1:10).  Paul goes on to describe the factions existed in the church which followed specific teachers such as Paul, Apollos, Cephas or Christ (v. 12).  Sounds to me like the way doctrinal differences foster today’s denominations.

But on the other hand, we are also commanded to “be ready in season and out of season to reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and instruction.  For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine. . .but will accumulate teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from the truth, and wander off into myths”   (2 Tim. 4:3-4).  Indeed, two vital components of the church have historically been unity and purity.  It is our concern and contention that the “New Perspective on Paul” threatens both.

The Scripture gives us an analogous encounter that reinforces our concern and response.  The book of Galatians thoroughly sets forth the doctrine of justification on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by faith and not by or of our works.  And in the context of defending that truth, Paul relates how he confronted the apostle Peter (2:11-16).

Peter had been an apostle for at least 15 years before his encounter with Paul in Antioch.  He was known as one of the “pillars” of the Church (2:9).  He had already received the vision/revelation that God was directing him to go to the Gentiles with the gospel.  He was chosen to lead Cornelius and his family to Christ, and he baptized them (Acts 10).  Peter then strongly defended this action to the other apostles and brethren in Jerusalem, and even to the “circumcism party” who were critical (Acts 11:1-18).  The latter were Jewish “believers” who claimed to accept Christ as the Messiah yet still insisted that believers must receive the sign of the covenant, circumcism (now baptism), and be obedient to the Law as necessary for salvation (Acts 11:2; 15:1-5).

The inclusion of Gentiles had also become a controversial issue in Antioch where Paul and Barnabus had seen many Gentile conversions to Christ (Acts 11:19-26; 13:42-49).  It was at Antioch that Paul noticed that Peter was compromising the gospel message by caving in to the pressure of the “circumcism party” as he withdrew from table fellowship with Gentile Christians and remained aloof from them (Gal. 2:11-12).

When Paul saw how this act influenced the other Jewish believers and even his close friend and co-laborer Barnabus, he “opposed him to his face because he stood condemned.”  Peter’s actions compromised “the truth of the gospel,” in that he compromised the fact that our justification is not based in any measure by our obedience to the Law but is through faith in Christ (Gal. 2:11-21).

So we too must write to speak out against any compromise on this absolutely essential, foundational doctrine of the Christian faith – the gospel and justification by faith alone.  Even though some of the leaders of the NPP movement are respected theologians in the evangelical community, we must speak out. We pray it will have the same effect that it had on Peter.  Peter later boldly returned to defend the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith in Christ alone at the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-11).

Craig Branch is director of the Apologetics Resource Center

(This article first appeared in the March-April 2007 Vol. 7 No. 2 Areopagus Journal)

 

Notes

[i] For some help on understanding the difference between heresy and less serious errors, see Steven B. Cowan, “The Genuine Article: The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith,” Areopagus Journal 2:3 (July 2002): 31-35.

[ii] Michael Brown, From Holy Laughter to Holy Fire: America on the Edge of Revival.  (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., 1996): 41-66.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Actually, the seminal developers of this view were Albert Schweitzer (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle [1931]), and the articles by Kristin Stendahl in the 1970’s.

[v] N.T. Wright, “The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith,” Tyndale Bulletin (1978): 78.

[vi] See Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (Phillipsburg, N.J., Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004): 139, 171.