What would John Calvin Say to the NPP?

John Calvin

As someone who believed medieval Rome taught a piecemeal salvation through a treadmill of sacramental performance, something which he equated in its essence to that of inter-testamental Judaism (aka Pharisaism) as a religion which rung the changes on works-righteousness — seeing both of these as examples of man’s innate tendency to idolatry and self-justification, he would not recognize the New Perspective as doing justice either to the exegesis of Scripture or a diagnosis of man’s real problem. He would regard it as wrongheaded pastorally as well as historically. As one who insisted on double-imputation, he would find the New Perspective’s denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as wholly inadequate to deal with the real problem of fallen (Adamic) man’s relationship to God. As one who made the cross central, he would be perplexed at the inadequate responses of the New Perspective to the question which inquires as to the necessity of the cross or what it actually achieved. Penal substitution through satisfaction were Calvin’s main emphases and a perspective which substitutes ecclesiastical categories (who belongs to the covenant community?) rather than soteriological categories (how can a sinner be made right with God?), and one that answers the former by emphasizing “boundary markers” of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, he would view as Catholicism redivivus.

So claims Derek Thomas. I would like to think that Calvin would have done a better job of understanding the NPP before he dismissed it.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, N.T. Wright, Quotations, The Blogosphere, Theological, What I'm Reading. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to What would John Calvin Say to the NPP?

  1. I think I’m going to write a book titled Things Famous Dead People Would Say If They Were Alive Today That Just Happen to Exactly Corespond to My Position. It’s just amazing how often dead people agree with me!

  2. Bill says:

    Derek Thomas was asked what he thought Calvin would think about NPP. I see no reason to think that he is proudly assuming Calvin would agree with whatever he thinks rather than that he is just giving an honest answer to what he thinks Calvin would say based on what he’s learned of Calvin. I understand the frustration of NPPer’s and that some opponents do proudly assume. Unfortuantely, I see just as much assumption in many NPPer’s that disagreement is born out of pride and an unfair hearing. Can what Thomas said simply be and honest opinion?

    Your comment at least lets Thomas honestly hold that opinion. He may hold that opinion based on a poor understanding of NPP. In fact, I would tend to give you that benefit of the doubt – that most opponents don’t critique NPP as the proponents understand it. My problem is that I can’t figure out how proponents understand NPP. I think that’s because I can’t get my brain out of the “operating system” of the old categories. I keep slipping back into trying to reconcile the concepts of NPP with the old categories and loose my way. I get lost in all the complication and jargon of NPP. I need it simply laid out for me, as for a child.

  3. pduggie says:

    I think its exactly because Thomas forgot he was working within his own categories that he makes which I think is a demonstrably false claim about baptism as a boundary marker.

    As reformed Christians, in our ecclesiology toolbox, we have the idea of boundaries. In that box we have baptism, the supper, excommunication, ordination, the visible church, professions of faith, etc.

    In our soteriology toolbox, we have imputation, righteousness, guilt, faith, instruments, justification, etc.

    When Wright says that the issue with justification is “what boundary markers demonstrate the people of God”, he says Paul’s answer is *faith* and not the ritual boundary markers of Torah and circumcision. When Thomas thinks boundary markers, though, he reaches into his toolbox and thinks “Ah, what do we think of as a boundary marker in our tradition? Baptism, right? So if Wright is saying that justification is about boundary markers, then he is claiming that the right view is to say that baptism marks the justified, and therefore justification must be effected by baptism, not faith”

    But Wright said no such thing. He said that the marker is faith. (He’s said that the event that signifies justification is baptism, just as the event that signifies final justification is resurrection, but that’s not talking about the marker, just what event signifies the fact)

    It seems to me too, that its very hard to see how “Calvin” would think that the NPP was Catholicism, since Thomas is willing to claim that Wright is moving from the question of “how can I be right with God” to “how can I know the people of God”. The catholic church seems to provide the answer of “baptism” to the former question. Thomas accuses the NPP of answering the latter question with it. So wither Catholicism? The baptism= boundary marker is a completely reformed answer anyway.

    So even if Thomas were right about Wright’s answer to “how can I know the people of God” (and he gives his OWN answer, not Wright’s), the catholics are dealing with our question, not wrights.

    I think Wright’s answer to “how can I be right with God” is that Jesus died on the cross and has objectively dealt with your sins already. God was propitiated on the Cross. So, no, baptism doesn’t propitiate God, but is the event where God’s cruciform propitiation is announced.

    I’m disappointed with Thomas’s analysis. It’s rather slipshod.

  4. pduggie says:

    I also think reformed people are too used to thinking of baptism as exactly corresponding to circumcision. It doesn’t (which is obvious if you think about it for 5 seconds: one is a cutting rite on a male organ, the other is water on ahead).

    The nature of baptism as “event” is highlighted by it’s lack of a permenant mark. The literal mark of cicumcision makes it a mark to display for assurance purposes.

  5. Bill,

    I thought my comment was clearly satire, which always exagerate for effect. Nonetheless, if stating what dead and gone people would say or think about contemporary issues is not one of the classical logical fallacies, it ought to be!

  6. Andrew says:

    I sympathise with people who can’t understand the NPP, since there are so many different views within it. I, for example, am firmly NPP but hold a very different NT Wright (ie he hails from the Reformed tradition, whereas I’m a liberal and we disagree about numerous things).

    I think Calvin’s feelings sbout my NPP view would be very different to his feelings about Wright’s NPP view, for example. So to say “Calvin would have thought X about the NPP” is a bit difficult! And I think it’s an exercise in futility – Calvin might have said “That’s an interesting idea. I’m not convinced and would like to see how it works out in detailed exegesis” or he might have said “that’s absolute and certain heresy” or he might have said “I’d never thought of that! Wow, it’s brilliant! I’m utterly convinced you’re right”. Sure, you can list the differences between Calvin’s theology and any given NPP view, but it would seem rather absurd to try to guess how Calvin would have actually responded had he been exposed to NPP ideas (and, of course, at what stage in his life he was exposed to them would have been highly relevant to his final views).

  7. Andrew says:

    Just for clarification, Derek Thomas is a Calvin scholar, which is why he was asked the question to begin with.

  8. Al says:


    I know that Thomas is a Calvin scholar. I would not dispute his credentials. However, in order to be qualified to give an opinion on the question he was asked, he needs more than just knowledge of Calvin. He needs to have a firm grasp of where New Perspective scholars are coming from and what they are saying. Unfortunately, such knowledge appears to be lacking.

  9. Andrew says:

    From my conversations with him, he seems most capable of answering the question and does have a firm grasp of NPP.

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