Wednesday, October 26, 2011
An Offstage Perspective on the NPP
By John G. Krivak
While the interaction generated by the NPP is found usually to be within the ranks of Protestantism/Evangelicalism, it might be helpful to take in the vantage of other perspectives. I recently searched for NPP treatments on Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:1-14), since this NT text seems prima facie to support the notion of legalistic Judaism (or Pharisaism, at least). I was surprised to find a very helpful NPP treatment offered by a Catholic.[i]
My own perspective draws from the American Restoration Movement. Early in the 19th century, denominations were proliferating and my forebears sought grounds for unity among them all. The strategy was a back-to-the-Bible trumping of human traditions. Debates were a popular means of achieving this strategy, but the success fell short of the universal unity we still seek. Especially, our debates involved the salvific role of baptism in Christian conversion. Our most noteworthy representative was Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), and our people were often derided as “Campbellites.”
The baptism issue made us odd-man-out within Christendom. With Catholics, we advocated remission of sin—but they intended “original sin” and baptized infants. With Protestants generally, we baptized adults—but Evangelicals opposed salvific meanings as strongly as we advocated them. Each Scriptural reference that seemingly offered a plain support for our view was met with a particular defense insisting that the texts could not possibly mean what they seemed to say. Yet behind these particular efforts of resistance was a common philosophical insistence: baptism could not be considered salvific, because this would involve “salvation by works.”
Martin Luther and the later “hardening” in his tradition: Luther’s opposition to institutional Catholicism, of course, led him into the easy mistake of a “this-is-that equivalence” between his battle with medieval Catholic “legalism” and Paul’s battle with the Judaizers. Paul, it erroneously seemed, faced the same spiritual issue: legalism, or salvation by works of merit, or positive moral achievements that could be presented to God for redemption. This would be self-righteousness, and the error has, over four and a half centuries later, been uncovered through the research of E. P. Sanders[ii] and then the ensuing NPP. We now understand that the Judaism in the day of Jesus and Paul was not looking to gain self-righteousness, while denying God His sovereign right to bestow grace, nor denying the need of God’s people to receive it.
Curiously however, as seen from my perspective, the most noteworthy lights of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther[iii] and John Calvin[iv], each made statements unequivocally in support of a salvific role for baptism. Although I am not a student of the history of Reformation doctrine, it looks as though the original protest against Catholic “works” eventually hardened into the demand for a “totally passive convert.” In other words, while Luther (and Calvin) saw no guilty involvement in “works salvation” while upholding a salvific role for baptism, emerging Protestantism (or Calvinism) certainly did. In a private meeting with our Harding University (Searcy, Arkansas) in the late 1980s, G. R. Beasley-Murray[v] suggested that debates against Campbell’s followers may even have been the cause of this development. He noted that Baptists on his side of the Atlantic supported a salvific role, while those entrenched against “Campbellism” on this side of the Ocean opposed it.
This hardening allowed only a convert so entirely passive that no involvement or cooperation with God could be claimed in acquiring salvation. God’s sovereignty was so thorough, that the convert could not even claim a role in choosing to believe vs. disbelieve the Gospel, much less engaging volitionally in additional salvation-acquiring obediences, such as repenting of sin (Acts 2:38), confessing the Lordship of Jesus orally (Romans 10:9-10), calling on the Name of the Lord (Acts 2:21; 22:16), or—finally—being baptized. To allow oneself active involvement in such activities, in hardened Reformation perspective, was surely an admission of “legalism” or “salvation by works.” However, in our perspective, any conversion failing to attend to these Scriptural requirements is incomplete and, to that degree, defective. Quite aware of how “legalistic” this must appear to our Reformed friends, we were yet compelled evangelistically to insist on active compliance.[vi]
Luther’s shadow overreached our people as well. While we taught baptism for the remission of sins and did not shy away from an active convert who was to “obey the Gospel” pursuant to being saved (2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17), we also generally accepted the Lutheran understanding of Paul. Thus, we also understood “legalism” to be characteristic of Second Temple Judaism and to be the dark, spiritual counterpoint of Christian Gospel. This prompted us to defend our expectation of “active” converts in ways that dodged the “legalistic” implications. For example, sometimes we admitted baptism was a “work”, but insisted that it was a “work of faith” rather than a “work of merit.” Or, we simply declared insistently that we realized that any sum of our admitted achievements was insufficient, apart from the saving grace of Christ, to merit our forgiveness. The NPP, however, removes the ground under the Reformed accusation that an active convert is engaging the spiritual failure that Paul engaged against. Paul, quite apparently, found converts who were engaged and relationally active to be quite normal. In short, our defenses offered under Luther’s shadow were unnecessary.
The contribution of Alexander Campbell: Campbell emerged at a time when there were but several Protestant denominations that had splintered away from Catholicism. He exhibited a fiercely independent spirit that brought him both alienation and a perspective that rose above tradition.
While yet among the Baptists, he delivered his famous “Sermon on the Law”[vii] in 1816 (almost exactly 300 years after Luther nailed his “Theses” at Wittenberg). Again, I admit my limitations in historical doctrine, but it was apparently common stock understanding at least among Baptists (and the same notion appears also in Campbell’s 1843 debate[viii] with the Presbyterian, N. L. Rice) that the Old and New Covenants were to be appreciated together seamlessly. Campbell stunned his contemporaries when insisting that the Old was to be distinguished from the New, and that only the latter was binding upon Christians. He was a novel and true supercessionist. In NPP perspective, this should be recognized as an essential first step in recovering the true context of Paul’s Judaizing discussions. The matter was essentially covenantal, with ethnic and social implications.
From a Restorationist orientation, then, the NPP probably has an easier reception than among Evangelicals accustomed to “passive convert” Protestantism and, perhaps, to a blurred relationship between the Covenants.[ix] I witness here the anti-NPP backlash from some streams of Evangelicalism. The true opposition facing Paul was a covenantal system, the addition of which to New Covenant Christianity implied the insufficiency of the Gospel alone. The Pharisees, against Jesus, were guilty chiefly of hypocrisy, rather than “legalism.” The Judaizers, against Paul, were chiefly guilty of binding the Christless covenant in addition to the covenant sealed in His blood. Instead, Paul forced the choice between one covenant and the other, leaving no play that any choice but Jesus was at all hopeful. He also left no room for the choice of both.
Baptism, a test case for the NPP? A new day has dawned. With Luther now centuries behind, and with the NPP allowing us at last to slip his shadow, theological walls erected centuries ago can be dismantled and fellowship can be restored. Debate, with its polemical rancor, failed the achievement. The NPP is truly a back-to-the-Bible movement, and I anticipate eagerly finding fellowship among Protestant circles from those who have also slipped Luther’s shadow.
It seems to me that baptism, ever the sticking point between us until now, offers a real test case for the NPP. The redefinition of “works salvation” from a Lutheran perspective to an authentically Pauline perspective obviates this. If we need no longer fear that our relational activity with God presents an affront to His sovereignty, is there any more hindrance to allowing the meanings for baptism that are presented even in a surface reading of the texts? Along with the leading Reformers of centuries ago, more than a few evangelical scholars have advocated a salvific role for baptism. The grounds for the primary objection have been removed.
From a Restorationist perspective, we have for long stretches of time endured charges against us, charges of legalism, self-righteousness, and merit-theology simply for insisting that converts be active in the salvation process. Harkening to the NPP, I now simply ask for those charges to be dropped.
[i] Revd. John P. Richardson, http://ugleyvicar.blogspot.com/2010/10/pharisee-tax-collector-and-new.html.
[ii] I do I wish to slight those discoverers antecedent to Sanders who had sniffed out the error of Luther. Sanders simply opened the eyes of a wider audience.
[iii] See Luther’s Larger Catechism (1530), Part Fourth: “In the second place, since we know now what Baptism is, and how it is to be regarded, we must also learn why and for what purpose it is instituted; that is, what it profits, gives and works. And this also we cannot discern better than from the words of Christ above quoted: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. Therefore state it most simply thus, that the power, work, profit, fruit, and end of Baptism is this, namely, to save. For no one is baptized in order that he may become a prince, but, as the words declare, that he be saved. But to be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, and to enter into the kingdom of Christ, and to live with Him forever.”
[iv] See Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Fourth, Chapter 15: “Baptism contributes to our faith three things, which require to be treated separately. The first object, therefore, for which it is appointed by the Lord, is to be a sign and evidence of our purification, or (better to explain my meaning) it is a kind of sealed instrument by which he assures us that all our sins are so deleted, covered, and effaced, that they will never come into his sight, never be mentioned, never imputed. For it is his will that all who have believed, be baptised for the remission of sins. Hence those who have thought that baptism is nothing else than the badge and mark by which we profess our religion before men, in the same way as soldiers attest their profession by bearing the insignia of their commander, having not attended to what was the principal thing in baptism; and this is, that we are to receive it in connection with the promise, ‘He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved’ (Mark 16:16).”
[v] Although a Baptist himself, Beasley-Murray, except for his advocacy of infant baptism, is in solid agreement with our understanding of baptism. See his Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962). He is by no means alone among evangelical scholars advocating a salvific role for baptism.
[vi] I confess the shoddiness of some of our own evangelistic efforts. At times, we have employed these requirements as a “checklist” for obedience, sometimes emphasizing the requirement of compliance while failing to emphasize the Cross-work of Jesus. I admit my own early failings here with true regret. The failure was bound up with methodology, rather than theology. Even so, this implicated us in a truly Lutheran-style legalism. I personally, and my fellow Restorationists generally, have learned better and made changes in our approach. However, our best evangelistic efforts instead present these, with each requirement guiding the active convert into the “relational dynamics” that yield an authentic entrance into the New Covenant relationship. Faith leads to mutual, to-the-death loyalty and commitment to Jesus; repentance to holiness of living; confession of Lordship to properly established authority; calling on the Name to dependence; and baptism to spiritual death and resurrection with Christ Jesus. These dynamics are essential responses to the Cross-work of Jesus and in no way implicate us in a truly Pauline understanding of works-salvation.
[vii] See Campbell’s published version in his Millennial Harbinger, Sept. 1846 (http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/acampbell/mh1846/SOTL.HTM).
[viii] Campbell-Rice Debate (Lexington, KY: Skillman and Sons, 1844).
[ix] Seventh Day Adventists, obviously, have dug in defensively against supercessionist interpretations of Paul. There remain currents within evangelicalism that also oppose this understanding of the covenants.