Monday, June 13, 2005

A couple of clarifications from Dr. Owen

Regarding questions I had asked in my post about the Owen-Svendsen dialogue, Paul Owen was kind enough to email to me the following responses:

1) I am not really a strong advocate of the NPP. I think that NPP scholars have rightly insisted that Paul’s letters be read against the background of real first-century issues, rather than viewing them through the lens of Reformational disputes. I do think that can be distorting. For instance, the dispute between Paul and the Judaizers is not at all whether justification is by faith alone, or faith plus works. You will never find that formulation in Paul’s letters when he is addressing his Judaizing opponents. It is always faith, or the Law; never faith, or faith plus works. The Judaizers simply did not view the Law as a negative thing, which brought a curse from which they needed to be delivered. The issue is whether justification is found through keeping the Law, or through faith in Christ. Judaizing Christians of course advocated faith in Christ as the Messiah, but clearly did not view faith in Christ as the means by which a person was made righteous in the sight of God (a view which would necessarily imply some deficiency in the Law). The problem in Paul’s letters is not Pelagianism (I can obey God without the help of grace), or Roman Catholic soteriology (as Protestants tend to read it); it is over the question of the ongoing value and purpose of the Law in light of Christ’s death on the cross. What does his death imply about the purpose of the Law for justification? That is where the dispute centered.

I also agree with NPP writers that the phrase “righteousness of God” in Paul normally refers to God’s own covenantal faithfulness, not a gift of forensic justification (2 Cor. 5:21 being an exception). I also lean towards the translation “faithfulness of Christ,” as opposed to “faith in Christ” in certain texts (e.g. Rom. 3:22), which is a view held by some NPP writers.

But when it comes to interpreting the “boasting” passages (e.g., Rom. 4:1-8; 10:1-4; Phil. 3:9), I definitely see self-righteous legalism as the problem here, not ethnic pride and the desire to exclude Gentiles. So I very much differ with NPP in one of its central issues.

2) I do not view Mormonism as a Christian religion. The Mormon Church is not a Christian Church. Furthermore, since I reject the validity of all non-Trinitarian baptisms, I do not view Mormons as Christians (any more than any other unbaptized people). My view is simply that some Mormons may be genuinely saved, according to the secret operation of the Spirit, despite their theological misunderstandings. I distinguish between heretics who are so do to unbelief, and heretics who are so do to misunderstanding. So while all Mormons are outside the visible Church, I do not exclude the possibility of some Mormons being included within the invisible fold of Christ’s flock (though their identity remains unknown to human eyes).

The latter I had thought was the case, but I wanted to allow Dr. Owen to speak for himself. The former illustrates the inherent problem of clinging to a descriptive label and trying to force a person into the label, rather than adjusting the label to fit the person. Religious discussions frequently suffer from failure to deal with individuals as individuals, as opposed to representatives of some school of religious thought that can be imputed to them.