One of the important issues of recent times is the 'new perspective' on Paul (the name Professor Dunn gave it in 1983).
I want to look at Paul's own perspective on something, the righteousness of God, focusing on Galatians.
Let me make four preliminary observations.
First, the word 'righteousness' and its brother word, 'justified' are law court words. For example, in 1 Cor 4:4 Paul speaks about the Corinthians' 'judgement' about his ministry where he says,'I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted (Greek: justified').
Paul uses this language to describe the relationship with God of those who are (in Paul's words) 'in Christ', Christian believers. He says that they are 'justified' (= 'acquitted').
The passive voice means that if I am 'justified' it means that someone else has 'justified' me, and that someone else is God. So: to be 'justified' means to be 'acquitted', acquitted by God.
But how does God do this? God does this through an agent, and that agent is Christ, or more specifically 'Christ's blood [= death']. Twice in Rom 5 Paul uses the passive 'justified' (i.e., by God) – 'justified by faith' (5:1) and 'justified by his blood' (5:9).
A second preliminary comment is that some advocates of 'new perspective' argue that Israel had no need of God's 'righteous-ing' activity since she was already 'in' the covenant, already saved and that Paul articulated 'justification by faith' for non-Jews, as a means of attaching the non-covenantal people of the nations (i.e., 'Gentiles') to Israel. But, as we shall see Paul teaches that both Gentiles and Jews 'sinners' who need the one means of salvation, Christ crucified and risen.
A third general comment relates to the idea of 'covenant'. E.P. Sanders, the prominent 'new perspectivist', famously made the 'covenant' with Israel the starting point for his reading of Paul. Paul uses the word only five times (Rom 11:27; Gal 3:17; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6,14) and none of these points to 'covenant' as the key word to explain the meaning of divine righteousness. We conclude that 'covenant' and 'covenant inclusion' are not the right point of entry to ascertain Paul's mind on 'righteousness of God'.
This prompts me, fourth, to express a concern about depending on meta-narratives to explain particular texts. It is fundamental that we start with the text before us. This applies whether we are addressing Paul's or his younger contemporary, Josephus. We have the author's words on the page and we are able (to a degree) to work out what he attempted to convey to his readers at the time. If our author is hinting that his words must be understood in terms of some meta-narrative or overarching typology that, too, may be useful. I am thinking of Paul's reference to the exodus and years of pilgrimage in 1 Cor 10 or to his 'allegory' of Abraham's two sons in Gal 4.
Yet caution is needed. Paul usually sends a strong signal of an overarching story or pattern. To import a meta-narrative or allegorical interpretation of our own will likely deflect us from the point Paul is actually making in his text.
Apart from overturning authorial intent, appeal to meta-narrative is open to criticism on other grounds.
One is an academic elitism that implies sovereign authority in interpreting individual texts. The story is told of a questioner who raised objections at a lecture given by a prominent 'new perspectivist'. The professor replied to the questioner, 'Have you read all the rabbinic texts? You haven't? Then please sit down'. Well, the expert hadn't read them all either, because they have not all survived.
Another possible problem with appeal to meta-narratives is that it says, 'if you can only grasp the true narrative universe of Paul, then you will understand Paul'. This sounds a bit 'Gnostic', as if to say, 'We the elect illuminati know the meta-narrative and understand Paul's real meaning while you poor plodding exegetes have only his text'?
Let me turn to Galatians.
In Galatians the ones Paul opposed surprises us. The 'incident at Antioch' (Gal 2:11-14) was a crossroads for Paul's relationships with notable leaders, Peter and Barnabas. These were Paul's opponents in Antioch.
The 'incident' at Antioch occurred ca. 48 and is mentioned in Acts 15:1-2 and Galatians 2:11-14 (with further discussion in Gal 2:15-20).
At the time the mixed assembly of Jewish and Gentile believers in Antioch shared table fellowship, including at the Lord's Table. But then a bombshell came in the arrival of 'certain men…from James' as Paul puts it (Gal 2:12), the effect of which was that the Jews Peter and Barnabas 'drew back and separated themselves' and would no longer eat with the Gentile believers.
Paul strenuously opposed those who said 'no circumcision no salvation' (so, Luke in Acts); 'no circumcision, no table fellowship' (so, Paul in Gal 2). According to this new teaching the common ground on which Jewish and Gentile believers must stand for salvation and fellowship is male circumcision. Without male circumcision of Gentiles, there is no salvation and no eating together
So how did Paul respond? He wrote:
15We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners,
16yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law
but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus,
in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.
20I have been crucified with Christ;
it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me;
and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me and gave himself for me.
21I do not nullify the grace of God;
for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.
We note, firstly that Paul is referring to the 'righteousness before God' of individuals ('a man is not justified by works of the law' [e.g., circumcision] but through faith in Jesus Christ [or the faithfulness of Jesus Christ]'); and secondly, that he is speaking of himself, Peter and Barnabas as Jewish individuals. I make this point again against those 'new perspectivists' who propose that 'justification by faith' was Paul's theological solution to the problem of the inclusion of the Gentiles, inferring (or asserting) that Jews were already 'in' the covenant and in no need of God's righteousness.
Paul is arguing that due to sin both Jews and Gentiles stand in need of God's righteousness, available only through the redemptive, accursed death of the Son of God on the tree. In Rom 3:9 Paul states that 'all' (that is, Gentiles and Jews) are 'under sin', that is, controlled by sin (as members of the lost tribe of Adam). As lawbreakers under the curse of the law, both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, find one and the same means of redemption, through the One who gave himself for sins, Jesus Christ the Lord (Gal 1:3; 2:20).
That Gentiles, as well as Jews have this blessing fulfils God's promise to Abraham, that in his 'descendant' (Christ) all the nations will be blessed. Abraham, himself, knew a kind of anticipatory 'justification' since, as it is written, 'Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness' (Gal 3:6; Gen 15:6).
Let me summarise.
1. I have attempted to establish Paul's thinking on the issue of the 'righteousness of God'. I have deliberately focused on a letter that is apologetic and polemical in character (Galatians), rather than the more measured letter like Romans. The pastoral situations are easier to identify in these more passionate epistles.
2. I do not warm to current interest in finding Paul's true meaning in some supposed wider or global biblical narrative that he is hinting at or alluding to. This approach implies that such narratives invariably informed Paul's intellectual universe, which his readers also share. Not only is that an assumption for Paul's Gentile readers who do not inhabit this narrative universe, but more particularly it allows the Bible interpreter who has supposedly reconstructed this 'global narrative' to re-shape the exegesis in subtle new directions.
3. Paul will argue trenchantly in Galatians against any attempt to find righteousness with God through any rite (like circumcision); righteousness of God is found only in Christ crucified and is the basis for eating together (Christian fellowship within the church of God). Paul's gospel is law-free, Christ-centred, grace-based, Spirit-empowered, and word-communicated.
Paul Barnett is a lecturer and writer
This is an edited version of a paper delivered at a symposium on Paul at Robert Menzies College 16 March, 2006; the other paper was given by Dr N.T. Wright.