The New Perspective on Paul

1. What is The New Perspective?

The last twenty-five years has seen a paradigm shift take place in some quarters of New Testament studies by proponents of what is called "The New Perspective" on Paul ('TNP'). TNP re-frames the way we understand the issues Paul deals with in his letters to the Galatians, Philippians and Romans among others. At the heart of TNP is a change in the way we should understand Judaism leading up to Paul's time – called Second Temple Judaism – and the Pauline language of righteousness/justification. This change to represents a significant departure from the Reformation understanding, and has caused great concern amongst a number of evangelicals.

This article provides a brief introduction to TNP and outlines some ministry implications.

1.1 Second Temple Judaism

A dramatic shift took place with E. P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). Sanders argued that Second Temple Judaism was a religion that relied on God's grace, not legalism or works as theologians of the Reformation onwards characterise it.

According to Sanders, Second Temple Judaism wasn't terribly concerned about salvation. It was concerned with who were 'in' the covenant people of God. Its main concerns were: "How do you get in the covenant people?" and "How do you stay in?" Sanders answers: You get in by God's gracious election and covenant, and you stay in by obedience to God's law (he called this obedience 'covenantal nomism'1). In the language of righteousness: you received the status of 'righteous' ( = 'get in') by God's gracious election and covenant; you maintain that righteous status ( = 'stay in') by obedience.

Since the concern of Judaism is with the covenant people, then righteousness/ justification language in Judaism also reflects this covenant-people focus.

The traditional evangelical understanding of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is this: declaration – God's legal declaration of acquittal from our sin and forgiveness of our sin; and, imputation – the righteousness of Christ accounted (imputed) to us and our unrighteousness accounted to him.

The basis of our justification is the work of God in Christ's death and resurrection: Christ takes our sin upon himself, he turns away God's wrath from us, he dies our legal penalty of death – he is our substitute. Here the justice of God and the justification of the believer are inseparably linked in the penal and substitutionary death of Christ. The way we take hold of God's work in Christ is by faith.

There is, clearly, a vast difference between the traditional evangelical understanding of righteousness/justification and the scheme proposed by Sanders.

1.2 Two TNP Scholars: James Dunn and N. T. Wright

Although Sanders didn't see his new framework as applicable to Paul's letters and gospel, these two scholars did and developed it into TNP.

James Dunn notes that Paul's righteousness/justification language follows closely his background in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism. Hence, Paul's righteousness/ justification language is primarily covenantal not legal – just as Sanders had argued for Second Temple Judaism. Hence, for Dunn, the Christian gets in the covenant people of God ( = has a righteous status) by God's grace and covenant, and stays in ( = maintains a righteous status) by obedience to God. However, for Dunn, since Christians still sin, justification means the forgiveness of sins that allows the covenant relationship to continue, and the covenant person to be 'right' with God until the final acquittal at the end of time. Faith, then, is trust that God will do what he says in maintaining the covenant status ( = the righteousness) of the Christian.

N. T. Wright also develops Sanders' reconstruction of Second Temple Judaism, and like Dunn, says that Paul's righteousness/justification language operates in a covenantal framework. Unlike Dunn, however, N. T. Wright highlights the foundational importance of the legal – that is, the law-court – aspect of righteousness/justification. According to Wright, to be righteous means to have the legal status of membership within the covenant people of God. Justification, then, is the event of God's declaration that a person is truly a member of God's covenant people. Faith is the "badge" of covenant membership – it is that total, obedient allegiance (that is, faithfulness) to Jesus that shows a person to be a member of God's covenant people.

For both Dunn and Wright, this covenantal understanding of Paul's righteousness/justification language has consequences for how we understand Paul's writings. When Paul criticises those who seek to be justified by 'works of the law' (e.g. Galatians 3), Paul isn't criticising some attempt to be found righteous before God based on performance of the Old Testament law or good works. Instead, 'works of the law' were "boundary markers" (Dunn), or "badges" (Wright) that demonstrated who was 'in' the covenant people and that separated Jews from Gentiles as God's covenant people – e.g., circumcision, food laws, the Sabbath etc.. According to both Dunn and Wright, Paul criticised the Jews because they failed to see God's covenant would include the Gentiles within his covenant people by faith in Christ not 'works of the law.'

Thus, Paul's righteousness/justification and 'works of the law' language for Dunn and Wright are primarily about how two different ethnic Christian groups (Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles) get on as God's people and how they can eat at the same table. Righteousness/Justification is no longer how sinful human beings can stand before God – soteriology. For Dunn and Wright righteousness/justification language is about church relationships – ecclesiology.

2. An Assessment

Have Sanders, Dunn, and Wright correctly understood Second Temple Judaism, the Bible as a whole, and more particularly, Paul's writings?

With regard to Second Temple Judaism, recent studies have shown it is much more diverse than Sanders' description allows. Contra Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, Second Temple Judaism has significant numbers of texts where it is clear that obedience to God's demands proves to be vital for acceptance with God. For example:

'Love is keeping [Wisdom's] commandments [= the law],
Observance of her laws is the guarantee of immortality.'2
(Wisdom of Solomon 6:18)

With regard to the Bible, it is a mistake for Dunn and Wright to flatten out the Bible's evidence by appealing to one, overarching 'covenant.' A quick glance at the Old Testament texts shows that God does not make one, but two separate and distinguishable covenants with Abraham (Genesis 15:9-21; 17:9-27); not to mention other covenants with Israel. Paul recognises these distinctions. At times he appeals to a covenant made with Abraham (Galatians 3:17; cf., Genesis 17:9-27), at others he recognises the plurality of Old Testament covenants (Romans 9:4; Ephesians 2:12).

Most importantly for us, recent studies on the Old Testament use of righteousness/justification language have shown just how little it has to do with covenant language.3 In the Old Testament, righteousness language, when used of God, occurs almost entirely in contexts where God's creative activity and his righteous ruling and judging of creation are on view (e.g., Psalm 98). Further, particularly in Proverbs, there is substantial overlap of "the righteous" and "the wise" such that a person's appropriate behaviour to God as Creator and to God's creation is the fundamental difference between being wise/righteous and being a fool/wicked. To be righteous means to act according to the norms established for humanity by God as Creator.

Hence, at least in the Old Testament, for God to 'justify' (vindicate) the righteous is to uphold their cause as righteous (and to execute judgment on the unrighteous); in a legal context it means to acquit the righteous – declare them innocent of wrongdoing. In other words, for God to 'justify' means the pronouncement and execution of justice.

Paul's use of righteousness/justification language is very much in line with Old Testament usage, but also at points paradoxically different from it. Recently, Stephen Westerholm has rightly argued that "righteousness" is found to be used in two ways in the Bible, and especially in Paul. First, "Ordinary" righteousness is 'what one ought to do and what one has if one has done it.' Second, "Extraordinary" righteousness is that gift to be received by the sinner, whose behaviour has not been righteous. Thus, for the sinner to "be justified" is to be decisively cleared of any charge of wrongdoing – it is acquittal of the ungodly by God. Although this thought is otherwise wrong (e.g., Exod 23:7), God's act in Christ renders it just (Romans 3:21-26).4

3. Ministry Implications

Why, then, is it so important to retain and indeed preach and teach the traditional evangelical view of righteousness/justification over against TNP's emphases?

3.1 Faithfulness to the Bible

It is far from obvious from the Old Testament and New Testament texts themselves that we ought to understand righteousness/justification language in the way Dunn and Wright would have us do. Dunn's and Wright's method requires the average reader of the Bible to understand the nuances of Second Temple Judaism (in the way they do) before he or she can understand Paul. It appears, then, that Dunn and Wright have inadvertently taken the Bible out of the hands of the average person and placed it back into the hands of 'authorised interpreters' (a pre-Reformation stance).

3.2 Hyper-ecumenism

For Dunn and Wright we saw that righteousness/justification is a doctrine about church. As such, God's declaration that by faith people are 'in' the church – justification – automatically means they are unified. Justification is really unification in their schema! Accordingly, all Christians must be united as God's covenant people. If you live in a suburb, like I do, with fifteen different local churches representing a number of different denominations, what shape does this take? Do we paper over real points of debate and division? Do we dumb down our theology and understanding of the Bible to the lowest common denominator so that everyone can be 'happy'? TNP logically demands that it becomes necessary to resolve just about any and every difference that disrupts the unity of God's worldwide church.

3.3 Reduced Gospel and Inadequate assurance of salvation

Most seriously of all, Dunn's and Wright's constructions leave us with a truncated gospel and an inadequate reason for assurance of our salvation. To change the way we understand justification/righteousness is to change the way we understand what God has done for us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. It is no mistake that both Dunn and Wright are fuzzy when it comes to the notions of Christ being our substitute, dying our legal death penalty, and assuaging the wrath of God – concepts so integrally linked with Paul's presentation of justification by faith (especially in Romans). For they have changed a doctrine which is primarily about God-human relations into one which is primarily about how humans relate to each other.

Since, for Dunn and Wright justification/righteousness language is primarily about human relationships, faith becomes the evidence of God's declaration that a person is 'in' the people of God. (Wright can, on occasion, speak of faith being the basis of God's declaration). So we see a shift away from Christ's death as the basis for our assurance of salvation to our faith as the evidence that God has saved us and declared us to be 'in' his people. Our exercise of faith becomes the basis for assurance rather than Christ's death. The argument would run something like this: "I have faith in Christ, therefore God has declared me to be 'in' his people, therefore, I am saved".

However, the question remains – a question found on the lips of so many in our congregations – "Is my faith strong enough, good enough, pure enough…?" This question is the logical outcome of TNP's construction of justification. But, as the Reformers point out, it is not the quality of my faith that gives me assurance but the quality of Christ and his sacrifice.

Each time I consider Christ's death in my place and for my sin, its turning aside of God's wrath from me, and God's declaration that I am acquitted of all wrongdoing because of Christ, I am assured that God in Christ has done more than enough to procure my salvation.

Jason Hobba is the Assistant Curate at Berwick Anglican Church in the South-Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. He has developed a recent passion for road cycling.

1 Which comes from covenant (obviously) and the Greek word for 'law,' nomos.

2 Citation taken from Simon Gathercole's Where is Boasting: Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5 (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2002), 69. His italics.

3 Mark A. Seifrid, 'Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism' in Justification and Variegated Nomism. Vol 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (eds. D. A. Carson, P. T. O'Brien, & Mark A. Seifrid; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 441.

4 Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New, 274-275.