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Copyright © 2003

In my denomination, the PCA, we are continually haunted by the sins of our racist Southern past. It has become an annual rite at General Assembly for the issue to be addressed one way or another, often by means of an overture from a presbytery in the South asking GA as a whole to make some official pronouncement or send a pastoral letter addressing the topic. Usually there is no exegesis of key texts on slavery or related concerns, and no deep engagement with the facts of history to identify the precise nature of the sins of our ecclesiastical ancestors. But there is a desire to somehow wash the damned spot from our hands.

This is where the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) can really help us. I find it odd that some of the same men who are most vigorous in pushing for denominational condemnations of racism are also the ones condemning N. T. Wright for reducing justification to an “ecclesial” or “social” doctrine.

The forgiveness of sins is certainly integral to justification. Justification is a soteriological doctrine, to be sure. Wright and other NPP scholars have been careful to acknowledge this (See especially N. T. Wright’s “The Shape of Justification.”

But it is also clear justification functions as part of an anti-racist, anti-ethnocentric polemic in the NT. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Paul’s passionate pastoral concern in Gal. and Rom. revolves around the status of the Gentiles. Are the Gentiles qua Gentiles still outsiders to the covenant? Is second class standing in the kingdom the best they can hope for unless they submit to circumcision? Paul is clear: to keep Gentiles at bay or to force them to enter the new Israel though the door of Moses is to deny the free grace of justification.

Had the Reformed church better understood Paul’s doctrine of justification, it would have been better prepared to stand against the evils of systemic racism. Racism is a denial of the gospel itself because the gospel is the good news that God is forming one worldwide family of believers who share in the blessing of Abraham (Gal. 3:8). In a time when it is proverbial to speak of “Sunday morning as America’s most segregated hour,” we need to ask ourselves serious questions about our fidelity to the gospel. More is at stake than bare doctrinal affirmations. Somehow we have gotten ourselves into a very Galatiansesque kind of situation, with countless communion tables and a deeply fragmented church.

A recent overture to the PCA General Assembly included these words:

Whereas, the heinous sins attendant with unbiblical forms of servitude–including oppression, racism, exploitation, manstealing, and chattel slavery–stand in opposition to the Gospel; and,

Whereas, the effects of these sins have created and continue to create barriers between brothers and sisters of different races and/or economic spheres; and

Whereas, the aftereffects of these sins continue to be felt in the economic, cultural, and social affairs of the communities in which we live and minister;

We therefore confess our involvement in these sins. As a people, both we and our fathers, have failed to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the laws God has commanded. We therefore publicly repent of our pride, our complacency, and our complicity. Furthermore, we seek the forgiveness of our brothers and sisters for the reticence of our hearts that have constrained us from acting swiftly in this matter.

We will strive, in a manner consistent with the Gospel imperatives, for the encouragement of racial reconciliation, the establishment of urban and minority congregations, and the enhancement of existing ministries of mercy in our cities, among the poor, and across all social, racial, and economic boundaries, to the glory of God.

Amen [*].

The 30th General Assembly passed Overture 17, to this effect:

The Thirty-First General Assembly of the PCA assigns to Mission to North America (MNA) the task of drafting a proposed Pastoral Letter designed to set forth the truth of our position on the issue of the gospel and race. This letter would be in a manner consistent with the gospel imperatives for the encouragement of racial reconciliation and gospel outreach to people of every “tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5.9 NKJV), and the enhancement of existing ministries of mercy, across all social, racial, and economic boundaries, to the glory of God.

If “racial reconciliation” is a “gospel imperative,” then the gospel itself is intrinsically social and ecclesial. The PCA, then, has basically affirmed a key plank in the NPP’s reading of Paul, whether this is realized or not. The overture indicates that the gospel is as “horizontal” as it is “vertical,” as much about the shape of community in the church as it is about the shape of our relationship to God himself.

But there are other implications as well. Racism has divided the church, and this is a travesty. But other ways of carving up the body of Christ are also denials of the gospel.

Given our preoccupation with individual soteriology, it seems to me we have a massive blind spot, both theologically and practically. We have used our attack on individual self-righteousness to shield criticisms of our corporate self-righteousness, sectarianism, denominational pride, etc. It’s acceptable in many Reformed circles to ruthlessly attack other ministers, split churches, refuse denominational reunion, criticize other Christians mercilessly, and basically act “fleshly” (cf. Gal. 5:19ff) because, after all, the “gospel” is at stake. In reality, it is the “gospel” that is being flatly denied every time such attitudes and postures prevail (Gal. 2:11ff). In other words, heresy is not only a matter of ideology and doctrine; it can also be a matter of attitude and action. It is not just orthodoxy, but also orthopraxy.

To the extent that Reformed Protestantism has individualized the message of salvation, and to the extent that Wright, J. D. G. Dunn, and others, call us back to a corporate view of salvation, it does indeed look like a “different gospel” is being proclaimed. But these “different gospels” are not really at odds, any more than eggs and omelets are at odds (to steal one of Doug Wilson’s illustrations). Wright’s view gives the gospel a broader sweep (since he makes it clear the corporate includes the individual), but compared to our truncated, pietistic version of the gospel it may look really different.

The problem, though, is our myopia. We’ve looked at the gospel under a microscope for four centuries (think, for example, of our ordo salutis debates). The individual has been the frame of reference for all discussion of soteriology, sacramental efficacy, etc. Our distance vision is dysfunctional. Wright and others, meanwhile, are asking us to look at the big picture of the gospel. Or, to use an alternative illustration that Peter Leithart has used in his Eucharistic studies, we have gotten used to looking at the gospel through a narrow zoom lens; the NPP gives us the wide angle view. We have focused almost exclusively on ordo salutis; the NPP gives us the historia salutis as a broader context in which to understand personal salvation.

We need to take the NPP seriously because it gives us something we’ve missed in our tradition. Ironically, I believe this broadens and strengthens, rather than narrows and weakens, our overall attack on pride. It’s not just individual, Pelagian-style self-salvation that threatens the gospel. Corporate-righteousness is as big a problem as self-righteousness. In fact, I’d say that in the early twenty-first century, the corporate issue is really the more serious threat. Being in the right in-group is now everything in our fragmented culture. But if the group that defines your deepest personal identity is marked out by something other than baptism/faith (e.g., “I’m Reformed,” “I’m white,” “I’m American,” “I’m a homeschooler,” “I’m a Republican, “I’m an environmentalist,” “I’m an unreconstructed Southerner,” “I’m African-American”), it is a denial of the gospel. Our culture pegs people and categorizes people in all kinds of ways that ignore the most fundamental fact about them, namely, whether or not they have been baptized into the Triune name and remained faithful to him.

Those who don’t want to face up to this because it forces them to rethink the precise meaning of their cherished prooftexts are actually vulnerable to another, equally insidious form of arrogance and legalism. In fact, judging by things going on in the Reformed world today — our sectarianism, our lovelessness, our doctrinal arrogance, our clique mentality, our mudslinging and name calling — I’d say we’re seeing it right before our very eyes. The Reformation dealt with the heresy of Pelagianism, but the Galatian heresy is alive and well. All too often we take an “us versus them” approach to fellow believers in different theological camps, different denominations, or whatever. This is simply unacceptable.

Finally, we must be wary of splitting apart what God has joined together, namely, the church and salvation. This is why it makes no sense, ultimately, to ask if justification is “soteriological” or “social.” (By analogy, consider how foolish it would have been to ask an ancient Jew if circumcision was a social sign or salvific sign. The question simply would not have made any sense.) The soteriological is social in Scripture, and vice versa (cf. Ps. 133). Think about it: God formed the human race to live in community. It was “not good” for Adam to be alone, so God provided a companion. Sin, of course, ripped the fabric of human community. But if redemption is truly a restoration and renewal of creation, it must take social shape. That social shape is what we call the church. And so in the church, as nowhere else, the unity and diversity of redeemed humanity must be on display for the world and angels (cf. Eph. 3:8ff) to see. In the church, the power of the gospel is at work to re-knit and mend the torn fabric of human community. This includes not only reconciling people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, but also believers of varying theological convictions under the umbrella of classical creedal orthodoxy. One God and one Christ require one gospel for all, one church, one baptism, and one table.

Copyright © 2003

* There are numerous other issues raised by this an overture, such as the propriety of repenting for the sins of one’s ancestors, the use of “politically correct” language, and the call for the establishment of “minority congregations” which may only perpetuate the problem of ethnically-defined “separate-but-equal” churches rather than helping to solve it. But I am sidestepping those complex issues to focus on what I believe is the main point at stake.

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