Book Review of Cornelis Venema’s “Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul” + My thoughts on “Covenantal Nomism”,”works of the law”, and “justification” as understood by E.P. Sanders, J.D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright

Posted: December 21, 2007 by Rick Hogaboam in Biblical Studies, Book Reviews, Covenant Theology, Theology
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Getting the Gospel Right

This is a tidy primer, assessing the works of E.P. Sanders’ “Paul and Palestinian Judaism”, J.D.G. Dunn’s “New Perspective on Paul”, and N.T. Wright’s views of Justification.

To be fair to the scholars assessed here, I have familiarized myself with Covenantal Nomism as presented by Sanders, have done some research into “works of the law” as used by Paul and understood by Dunn, among others…and have read, “What Saint Paul Really Said” by Wright.  Venema views the work of these 3 scholars as a departure from the traditional reformed understanding of the law, justification, and penal atonement.

To be honest, I wasn’t alarmed at reading the contributions of the 3 mentioned scholars. The thought presented by Sanders, that 2nd temple Judaism wasn’t a legalistic sect that viewed the law as a job description to earn favor with God, is helpful. At the same time, it would be dangerous to characterize the thought life of Judaism with a blanket assessment. As for Dunn’s understanding of Paul’s usage of “works of the law” to refer to the boundary marker laws which made Jews look differently than others, may in fact be what Paul is talking about in certain cases. I think that Paul didn’t have a problem with Jews continuing to practice certain ceremonial aspects of the law…In fact, Paul had Timothy circumcised to appease unbelieving Jews for the pragmatic intent of being all things to all people so as to not hinder in any way the advance of the Gospel. At the same time, Titus was not circumcised, and Paul was cool with it. Paul was about getting the gospel out and at the same time showed some latitude on peripheral issues. Paul was clearly opposed to Jews who sought to impose upon Gentiles the ceremonial aspects of the law. I think that is what Paul specifically has in mind in Galatians, and such doesn’t undermine the idea that Paul opposed the whole notion of the law making us right. Paul, in Romans, does not restrict the law to simply ceremonial aspects (except when he mentions circumcision) and has in view the totality of the law, including the so-called “moral” aspects of the law. Being the case then, I am not threatened by Dunn’s work.

As for N.T. Wright, though, I am still working through his stuff. My initial response is one of concern regarding the atonement. Wright tends to emphasize other aspects in the atonement, almost rejecting any notion that a transaction took place on the cross where our sins were abolished and Christ’s righteousness was imputed to His sheep. Though Wright may be right on with most of his stuff, it is at this point of justification that causes concern in the Evangelical community. John Piper has just released a work, “The Future of Justification”, which is a direct response to N.T. Wright. I will be interested to see where this goes.

As for Venema’s work, I would recommend it as an introductory volume on the issue, but urge people to acquaint themselves directly with E.P. Sanders, J.D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright in order to fairly assess these issues.

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