About a decade ago, Ligon Duncan attacked a swath of evangelicals who “fell” for the New Perspective on Paul. He said:
Second, there are evangelicals who are social conservatives but who are bent on Christianity expressing itself societally. Among these are theonomists, reconstructionists, “ex-theonomists and reconstructionists” and other miscreants. It is amazing how quick they are to discard reformational soteriological teaching in order to advance their neo-sacerdotalism, kingdom ecclesiology/eschatology, and dreams of Christendom.
This claim of his was uncharitable, ill-informed and wrong. The word “miscreant” means “a wretch; a villain.” Presumably, he thought throwing this word around was funny, as he used it again in a footnote: “The Eschatological Aspect of Justification by James T. Dennison, Jr (formerly of WTS-California), is a short lecture on Romans 4:25, published in Kerux, criticizing Sanders, Dunn, and various other miscreants.”
Who did Duncan have in mind with this ridiculous term? Probably men like Peter Leithart, James Jordan, Mark Horne, Rich Lusk and Joel Garver, who at that time had interacted with Wright’s work to varying degrees. Rich Lusk had this to say of Duncan’s charge:
Duncan barely even engages the mass of evidence that we put together to support our interpretation of Calvin’s high sacramental theology. He lists perceived errors, but never shows in detail how these are our errors or why our interpretation of the Reformed tradition is off-base. More than that, though, I must ask why Duncan thinks these students of Reformed theology are not worthy of respectful, loving interaction. Elsewhere, Duncan has referred to a similar group of Presbyterian pastors and scholars as “miscreants” (see his essay, “The Attractions of New Perspective(s) on Paul”). Those of us on the receiving end of Duncan’s attacks do not feel like he has adequately understood our views or accurately stated what we believe. But surely this is because he has determined from the outset to give us an unsympathetic reading. Why should anyone trust an interpretation that is so admittedly biased? Personally, I would like to know why Duncan thinks Joel Garver and Peter Leithart (to take two examples) are impious scholars. I’d like to know why he finds their theological work less than substantial. Surely it cannot be because these men present themselves in an arrogant, haughty fashion. Anyone who knows them would laugh at the charges. Surely it is not because they lack serious academic credentials. They both have doctorates from top flight institutions. I could further speculate as to Duncan’s motivations, but love restrains me.
So there is a doctrine of Scripture problem, I would assert, that underlies Dunn’s doctrine of justification problem. You can see this same kind of thing, actually, in N. T. Wright’s when he articulates his philosophy of knowledge. Wright’s epistemology is very much indebted to some 20th century epistemological thinking that I think, in my view, buttresses a Kantian relativism and an unknowing of the noumenal and hence a reductionism. So I think that once again you see how things will go back to a faulty doctrine of scripture.
Wright himself responded to this, writing:
Thanks again. I’ve read it through and it’s a sad and sorry thing of course… he simply hasn’t heard the question, hasn’t taken the trouble to read what I say in the light of what Paul says. Actually the view he describes me holding towards the end of his piece – a remarkable little outburst! – is quite close to the reformed view which he seems not to know much about either. On scripture and epistemology, it’s remarkable how he can wave his arms around and say `Kant – relativism — reductionism’ as though that proves anything (and as though it’s accurate!). And then, when he reads the text, isn’t it interesting that he stops at verse 28? Had he gone on (`Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not of Gentiles also… etc’) he might have been forced, by attention to the text he so reveres, to reconsider whether there is, to put it mildly, something missing in his exegesis of the passage to which that is the proper conclusion.
Fast forward to today: Lig is now best buddies with a group of pastors that include C.J. Mahaney, who is accused of some serious cover ups of sexual abuse. Furthermore, Mahaney admitted to blackmailing a former pastoral colleague of his. You might say that these actions could make one a miscreant. And yet, these very serious offenses have not caused Ligon’s faith in Mahaney to waver:
A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry. We believe this lawsuit failed that test. For this reason, we, along with many others, refused to step away from C. J. in any way. We do not regret that decision. We are profoundly thankful for C. J. as friend, and we are equally thankful for the vast influence for good he has been among so many Gospel-minded people.
Note that this doesn’t in any way address the previous blackmail that Mahaney admitted to. My belief is that the measure that Ligon used to judge Wright and all the other “ex-theonomists” is now coming back on his own head as he stands by an ethically compromised leader due to being part of a movement that has provided him with visibility and celebrity. It would be wise for him to reassess both his attitude towards Mahaney and his previous rash statements towards a group of men with whom he disagreed theologically, but branded with a wildly out of proportion term.
UPDATE: I have Duncan’s SGM presentation paper here.