Discussion and Implications of the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is God’s power for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first, as well as the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith(fullness) for faith(fullness), as it has been written, ‘(and) the Righteous One/righteous will live through faith(fullness).’  -Romans 1.16-17 [1]

Few passages in the New Testament have elicited more debate throughout the centuries than Romans 1.16-17 and its explanatory corollary passages in Romans 3 and 5. Standing towards the beginning of perhaps Paul’s greatest letter, Romans 1.16-17 is the formulaic prelude to a dense discussion which follows in subsequent chapters. It is the author’s contention that the most adequate understanding of Paul’s writings follows from the recent insights of what has been termed the “New Perspective on Paul” (hereafter NPP).[2] Although not a univocal movement, the NPP is a revolution in Pauline scholarship which began in the late 1970’s following E.P. Sander’s major publication Paul and Palestinian Judaism, seeking to place Paul and his writings back in their proper historical context: namely that of first century Judaism(s).[3] Dislodging Paul from later Augustinian and Reformed interpretations that portray Paul as though he were fighting against Pelagius, Erastus, or the Catholic Church, the NPP has brought to the fore important components of Pauline thought that have been previously neglected—or simply misunderstood—not least of which is Paul’s discussion the dikaiosune theou, the “righteousness of God.”

To understand Paul’s writings, one must first understand his personal background and the socio-historical context of his writings. Paul was born a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day of his life, belonged to the Pharisaic party, and claimed to have followed the “traditions of my fathers” more passionately than any of his contemporaries, even stating that he was “blameless” according to the “righteousness” that could be found under the Torah/Law (Philippians 3.4-6; Rom. 9.1-5; Gal. 1.14; 2.15). His zeal for Torah led him to fight against the “church of God” (Gal. 1.13). However, he abruptly became its greatest advocate after he received “the benefaction of God”[4] (1 Cor. 15.8-10) when God “[revealed] his Son” (Gal. 1:16), the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth, to him in a revelatory vision (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-2). Following this vision Paul became a powerful advocate for Gentile Christianity, often combating within early Christianity alternative viewpoints that tried to disavow Gentiles Christians full admittance into the Church unless they first followed Torah proscriptions, such as circumcision and dietary laws.[5]

However, despite his revolutionary change from strict Torah observance to his new-found Christian “freedom” (Gal. 2.4), much of Paul’s personality and religious worldview remained the same.[6] Scholars now almost universally recognize this point,[7] which is foundational for all further discussion. For instance, Paul quotes often from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, displaying his underlying assumption that they are still authoritative texts for interpreting the God of Israel’s past and present will and actions. He likens his call as an apostle to a prophetic calling (Gal. 1.15-16; cf. Isa. 49.1; Jer. 1.5);[8] in fact, he appears to understand his mission as apostle to the Gentiles as shaped around passages in Isaiah that display the Gentiles coming to worship the God of Israel (Rom. 15.21; cf. Isa. 52.15).[9] His devotion for Torah has now become his devotion to the proclamation of the Christian gospel.[10] His worldview remains dominated by the Jewish mentality of division between Jews and Gentiles, between the God of Israel and the pagan gods of corrupted humanity (Rom. 1.16; 9.24; 1 Cor. 1.22-25; 10.32, etc.).[11] His religious thought is dominated by an apocalyptic understanding of the Messiah (the Messiah being a decidedly Jewish eschatological hope), and the future judgment of the world (e.g., 2 Cor. 5.10; Rom. 2.3-11).[12] His theology is constructed around the understanding that God’s relationship with humanity is founded upon covenant agreements, especially God’s covenants with Abraham.[13] In fact, his arguments in Galatians and Romans are primarily shaped around explicating this covenant and its present purposes (see for instance, Gal. 3-5; Rom. 4-11). Many other such points could be listed. Simply, Paul’s concerns are the concerns of first century Judaism, but have been uniquely reformulated in result of his revelatory vision that prompted his newfound understanding that in Jesus of Nazareth God revealed his saving plan to the entire world, not just to those of Jewish heritage.[14]

With this basic understanding of the man who penned the letter to the Romans, our first question should thus be: What would a first-century Jew or Jewish Christian have understood by the phrase “the righteousness of God”? This phrase occurs throughout the Septuagint (LXX), and typically refers to God’s covenant faithfulness—especially within the Psalms and Isaiah, both of which were frequently quoted or alluded to by early Christians, including Paul.[15] That is, it is typically employed to express God’s own faithfulness to his covenants. According to Richard Hays:

God’s righteousness is manifest in his resolute faithfulness to the covenant with Israel. Indeed, in the lament Psalms, the Psalmist can frequently appeal to God’s righteousness as a way of invoking the…covenant blessing (cf. Ps 31:1; 71:2)… [God’s righteousness] characterizes not merely an abstract attribute of God, but [a specific] aspect of the divine character made manifest in the action of claiming and delivering Israel.[16]

Before proceeding further, however, it must be understood that “righteousness language” as a theological concept within biblical literature (including Paul) and Second-Temple Judaism has its roots in the metaphor of the law courts of ancient Israel.[17] In ancient Israel, the law court was where the plaintiff or defendant would be vindicated, or declared “righteous,” after the trial had been heard by a judge. The righteousness at stake for the defendant or plaintiff is that of a status (not necessarily a judgment of the moral state of the individual) after the trial has concluded which declares them to be in the right.[18] The righteousness at stake for the judge, however, is not a status, but a quality of impartiality and commitment to fairness that he uses in deciding the case.[19] It is clear within this context that when calling the judge “righteous” or the defendant or plaintiff “righteous,” two quite different meanings are being posited. It is a conflation of usage to suggest that the judge has imputed or imparted his own righteousness to the defendant or plaintiff after a case has been decided, as if righteousness is a substance that can be transferred from one to another; nor does it make any sense to say that the judge has a status of righteousness after the trial has been concluded. Simply, the judge’s “righteousness” and the plaintiff’s or defendant’s “righteousness” are different categorically.[20] This point will become important when analyzing the history of interpretation of Paul’s use of dikaiosune theou in Romans.[21]

One more critical point must also be understood concerning “righteousness/justification” language (both “just” and “righteous” in English [and their other related forms] translate just one word [and their related forms] in Greek and Hebrew) and the theological metaphor of the law court—it only makes sense when the understanding of God’s righteousness (as judge) is firmly fixed within the understanding of the covenant with Israel.[22] For it is within the analogy of the law court that the apocalyptic judgment of God upon the nations (Gentiles) will occur, and within which God’s vindication of Israel is often portrayed within the biblical texts (especially Isaiah and Psalms).[23] For instance: Israel has been constantly oppressed throughout her history by the gentile nations (whether depicted as the Assyrians, Babylonians, or, for first century Judaism, Rome), and seeks vindication in God’s metaphorical law court by bringing a suit against them (in some alternative instances, interestingly, it is instead YHWH who brings a suit against Israel for unfaithfulness; this “covenant lawsuit” motif is found often in biblical literature. [see Hosea 4.1-3; 12.2; Isaiah 3.13-15; Micah 6.1-8]).[24] Often in this scenario Israel (as plaintiff) seeks to be acquitted—declared “righteous” or vindicated—as God’s true people on the grounds of God’s own faithfulness to the covenant that he had graciously made with them. If Israel truly is God’s chosen community as he has promised and declared, then his righteousness—his resolute faithfulness to this covenant to deliver Israel and honor his covenant with them—they believe, will assure them their victory in court.[25]

As mentioned, however, Israel has been oppressed by foreign nations throughout her history. Has God, therefore, been unfaithful to his covenant? Has the honor of his name been destroyed for withholding his judgment on the Gentiles and allowing his own people to be oppressed? Prophetic interpreters, such as Hosea and Jeremiah, stated that Israel had often been allowed to be afflicted because of her sinfulness—for having been unfaithful to the Mosaic Covenant charter, the Torah.[26] The question thus arose following the annihilation of the Israelite monarchy and state in 586 BCE: would Israel ever be vindicated? Had God permanently abandoned Israel on account of her metaphorical “adultery” (for the analogy of Israel’s unfaithfulness to YHWH as adultery in biblical literature, see Hos. 1-3; Jer. 2.2; 3.1-5, 19-20; Ezek. 16; Is. 5.1-7; 62.5)? According to Richard Hays, following the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the question of the continuing validity of God’s prior covenants with Israel became of paramount importance to explain, and it was to “God’s [own] righteousness”—the dikaiosune theou—that Israel’s hopes would appeal: “…In Deutero-Isaiah, God’s righteousness becomes the ground and content of an eschatological hope for the setting right of human historical experience: despite present appearances to the contrary, God will reveal his righteousness in a way which will vindicate Israel’s trust in him, thus leading all nations to acknowledge his cosmic lordship.” [27]

It is within this context of the metaphor of the law court and the hope of Israel’s future vindication on account of God’s own righteousness that Paul’s purposes for Romans should be grounded. Second Temple Judaism (including what would become the Christian movement) often expressed their future hope for the vindication of Israel through their eschatological views of the coming Messiah.[28] But if Israel already had a hope for the future deliverance of Israel (a hope based upon God’s righteousness and covenant promises, and which would manifest itself in a deliverer Messiah), what is Paul then seeking to defend God’s righteousness and the covenant against in Romans? Here we encounter head on Paul’s contention with those in the early Christian movement who sought to make Gentile converts conform to Torah obligations before allowing them full participation within the Christian community.[29] If Paul’s position is that Gentile converts do not need to follow Torah restrictions to be allowed full fellowship/table participation in the covenant community, has God been unfaithful to ethnic Israel which had been historically defined around the Mosaic covenant and its subsequent Torah obligations? It is to explain how God has both been faithful to the Mosaic covenant contracted with Israel and yet allowed Gentiles into the covenant community without first conforming to Torah obligations that much of Paul’s argument in Romans is focused according to the NPP.[30] For Paul, God’s honor and faithfulness to the covenant with Israel is not in question, for he has not abandoned her or his covenants with her, but has now instead reconstituted the true people of God—the true “Israel”—in the new Christian community, whose covenant charter is the “Torah (nomou) of faith” (Rom 3.27), not the Mosaic Torah.

God’s righteousness—his resolute covenant faithfulness to assure Israel’s hope of vindication—has been manifested apart from the Law (Rom. 3.28)—that is, the Torah—by sending Jesus to redeem all humanity (thus destroying Israel’s true oppressors, not Babylon or Rome, but sin and death) and to redefine God’s chosen community. For Paul, Israel had missed her vocation, namely to be that of a light to the world and to declare to the Gentiles through her example that the God of Israel’s dominion is all pervasive.[31] They had misunderstood all along the original covenant with Abraham (a covenant which, importantly, did not function under later Mosaic Torah obligations), which was destined to redeem all of humanity—not just ethnic Israel.[32] God, according to Paul, has acted to do just that in Jesus the Messiah. God’s righteousness is now apart from Torah, for it is not Torah that now defines or identifies who is truly member of “Israel.”

Before proceeding further, it might be helpful to clarify the Torah’s relationship to the covenant. This is another place where the NPP has helped to shed significant light on Pauline studies. As E.P. Sanders originally stated:

The all-pervasive view [of Judaism] can be summarized in the phrase ‘covenantal nomism’. Briefly put, covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression…obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such. It simply keeps an individual in the group which is the recipient of God’s grace.[33]

Sanders summarizes:

…covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God‟s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.[34]

Simply stated, Torah obligations were not usually viewed by early Jews, including Paul, as a means of earning salvation; rather one kept the Torah as the proper response to the salvific covenant offered by God to Israel. Unfortunately, later interpreters such as Augustine and Luther have misunderstood this crucial point, and in so doing have often presented Paul as antagonistic to the Torah, or as refuting (anachronistically) some form of moral legalism that seeks to earn God’s salvific favor. Rather, Paul is arguing that Torah obligations are no longer the means of maintaining the covenant and identifying who is already a part of true Israel.[35] The true community is no longer identified and no longer maintains the covenant based upon Mosaic Torah obligations as a proper response to God’s covenant love, but now instead keeps the “Torah of faith” (Rom. 3.27).

This foundational discussion of God’s righteousness and the relationship of Torah to the Mosaic Covenant will now allow us to understand properly what Paul’s use of another technical term—“justification”—meant. In Romans, as has been noted, Paul’s main purpose is to explain how God has accepted Gentile Christians as part of the true community of God without having to maintain Torah regulations. Paul’s point is that the true covenant community is no longer outwardly defined or identified only by those who are of Jewish ethnicity and practice strict Torah obedience—for God has now redefined the community around those who believe through “Christ’s faith(fulness)” (Rom. 3.22, 25-26). “Justification” as a technical term is about explaining how one is identified as a member within the collective covenant community (i.e., the Christian church, the new Israel); it is not used to denote how an individual somehow receives their future “salvation” in the present, or forgiveness of sins for that matter.[36] Paul is not using “justification” as a technical term to explain how a sinner is ultimately found to be worthy to dwell in God’s presence, and he is certainly not using “justification” as a term to explain how one is saved by God’s grace as opposed to those who try to “merit” their own future salvation and right standing with God. For both Paul, and Jews at large, earning ones salvation was not a concern. However, defining who Gods true people were in the present was always a pressing issue for both Jews and early Christians.[37] “Justification” as a technical term is concerned with identifying/defining those who are in the present members of God’s true corporate covenant community, those who can anticipate God’s future vindication conditional upon their continuing faithful obedience to the covenant and their future eschatological judgment. And for Paul it is those who “believe” through “Christ’s faith(fulness)” that have this covenant identification. Christian “faith” for Paul is, as N.T. Wright has stated, a “badge” identifying them as a member of God’s people, just as faithful adherence to Torah prescriptions had been in the past a means of identifying God’s chosen group.[38]

Returning now to the original phrase under discussion, it is quite clear that when dikaiosune theou is taken as referring to God’s own righteousness, Paul quickly becomes dislodged from later Augustinian and Reformed readings that make his discussion of the “righteousness of God” in Romans the antidote to Pelagianism or the teachings of the medieval Catholic Church which (according to Luther) stressed “works righteousness,” seeking to merit God’s salvific favor and grace. Rather, by placing Paul’s writings in their proper first century context, it becomes clear that the dikaiosune theou is a subjective and/or possessive genitival construction referring back to God himself—it is God’s own righteousness that is being discussed in Paul’s writings in terms of his covenant faithfulness (possessive genitive) and his closely related acts of covenant faithfulness (subjective genitive).[39] Because Lutheran, Reformed, and Augustinian readings have most often erroneously taken Paul’s discussion of the righteousness of God as the terminology for how a human can come to stand in God’s holy presence, they have instead turned the phrase “righteousness of God” into a genitive of origin (making “righteousness” an “imparted” or “imputed” status given to humans that declares them “righteous”) or an objective genitive (denoting righteousness as a “quality” that some humans have [or are given from God] that God recognizes as effectual).[40] However, Paul is simply not addressing how an individual sinner is accounted as “saved” when he discusses the “righteousness of God” (or when he uses “justification” language for that matter). God’s righteousness (as judge) simply is not a transferable substance or  legal fiction that is “imparted” or “infused” for/to/into humans to make them worthy to dwell in God’s heavenly presence. As N.T. Wright has stated, “The Jewish context…creates such a strong presumption in favour [sic] of [righteousness as referring to God himself] that it could only be overthrown if Paul quite clearly argued against it.”[41] As Richard Hays has summarized the situation:

Once it is recognized that “the righteousness of God” in Romans is deliberately explicated in terms of this covenant conceptuality, it becomes apparent that the term refers neither to an abstract ideal of divine distributive justice nor to a legal status or moral character imputed or conveyed by God to human beings. It refers rather to God’s own unshakable faithfulness…Insofar as “righteousness” may be ascribed to human beneficiaries of God’s grace…this righteousness should be interpreted primarily in terms of the covenant relationship to God and membership within the covenant community…”Righteousness” refers to God’s covenant-faithfulness which declares persons full participants in the community of God’s people. This declaration has a quasi-legal dimension, but there is no question here of a legal fiction whereby God juggles his heavenly account books and pretends not to notice human sin. The legal language points rather to the formal inclusion of those who once were “not my people” in a concrete historical community of the “sons of the living God” (Rom. 9.25-26)[42]

Romans is thus a nuanced explanation of how God has been faithful in his own righteousness to his past covenants to redeem the world, and how one defines the true” Israel”, or community of God. It is not an argument for how to combat those who try to approve themselves worthy of a right relationship with God through works. Rather, the works Paul discusses are those of the Mosaic Torah, by which devoted Pharisees—and Paul had said he had been a “blameless” Pharisee—identified who was truly a member of the covenant community in the here and now.[43] By admitting that Paul’s primary concern is how Gentiles can have full table fellowship with fellow Jewish Christians and be considered “Abraham’s children” (Gal. 3. 29; cf. Rom. 4-8) the depths of Paul’s writings are released.

[1] Translations throughout this essay are the author’s own.  This essay was originally written for an introductory New Testament course I took several years ago in college.  I have left it mostly intact, although there are a few points I would now modify. I have left them, however, in order to facilitate further discussion.

[2] Many of the world’s foremost biblical scholars are major proponents of the NPP. See: E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns in Religion (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1977); Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1983); James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990); The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998); N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said: Was St. Paul the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997); “The Letter to the Romans.” New Interpreters Bible, Volume X. Ed. Leander E .Keck. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002); Krister Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Philidelphia, PA: Fortress, 1976).  See also Ben Witherington’s Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).

[3] For a simple introduction to historical scholarships’ views on Paul as well as the beginning of the NPP and its aims, see N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 7-23. That we can only really speak of first century Judaisms, see pg. 78 specifically.

[4] Here I have followed the suggested translation of Zeba Cook in “The Divine Benefactions of Paul the Client,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 2 (2001-05): 9-26 (as cited in Blake Ostler, Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems of Theism and the Love of Go, Volume 2 (SLC, UT: Kofford Books, 2004), 293, 306), whose explanation of the translation of 1 Cor. 15.10 is as follows: “The typical translation of charis as “grace” obscures the clear connection that Paul draws between the reception of the vision and the charis that makes him what he is. While, as a translation, “grace” has pleasant theological nuances, it hardly reflects the meaning the word has in the context in which it functions, namely that of divine patronage. Instead, translating charis in a way that Paul’s contemporaries would have understood the term brings this verse into startling relief: “By the benefaction of God I am what I am, and his benefaction which was given to me was not in vain, but I toiled beyond all of them, not I but the benefaction of God which is with me”(1 Cor. 15.10).”

[5] Although this point is likely obvious from a simple reading of Galatians and Romans, see anyway Bart Ehrman’s introductory discussion of the Letter to the Galatians in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 331-340.

[6] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, 293-301; N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 25-37; and John W. Drane’s article “Paul” in The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Eds. Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), 576-579.

[7] Ibid. So specifically claims N.T. Wright in What Paul Really Said, 20.

[8] Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), 87-93. Krister Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Philidelphia, PA: Fortress, 1976), 7-23.

[9] Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 87-93; N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 78.

[10] N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 39-40.

[11] N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 29-35, 79-94; Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, 293-301; and Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 87-93.

[12] Ibid. For the role of the Messiah among various Jewish and early Christian groups see Bart Ehrman The New Testament, 68.

[13] N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 29-35; Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, 293-301; and Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 87-93.

[14] For a fuller discussion of Paul’s Jewishness as laid out here, see Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 87-93. Such works are of course heavily indebted to the foundational studies of W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism; Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (London: S.P.C.K., 1955), and E.P. Sanders revolutionary work Paul and Palestinian Judaism. For a good, although brief, introduction into Paul’s pre-Christian background and the affects it had upon his subsequent Christian life and thought, see again N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 25-37, as well as the subsequent chapters which systematically flesh out Paul’s modified Jewish views and mentality in light of his revelatory experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus. See also Bart Ehrman’s discussion of Paul’s newfound views in consequence of his vision in The New Testament, 293-301.

[15] At least 107 direct quotations of the Hebrew Bible appear in Paul’s writings, many of which belong to the Psalms and Isaiah. See M. Silva, “Old Testament in Paul,” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, Eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 631.

[16] See Richard B. Hay’s article “Justification” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 3. Ed. David Noel Freedman (Doubleday, 1992), 1129. See also the discussion of Ben Witherington in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 52-56.

[17] For a discussion of the metaphorical law court in which righteousness language is couched, see: N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 96-99.

[18] N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 98-99.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] For how this plays out in the history of interpretation, see N.T. Wright in What Paul Really Said, 100-103, 113-117, 118-120, 125-133.

[22] N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, pgs. 95-99.

[23] Ibid. Also, see Richard B. Hays, “Justification,” pg. 1129-1133.

[24] See Michael Coogan’s The Old Testament A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 323; also pgs. 321-325.

[25] For a discussion of the biblical eschatological judgment and the analogy of the law court as described in this paragraph, see again N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, pgs. 96-99.

[26] For and introduction to Hosea and Jeremiah see Michael Coogan, The Old Testament, 321-325 and 366-376, respectively.

[27] Richard B. Hays, “Justification,” 1129.

[28] For the role of the Messiah among various Jewish and early Christian groups see Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, 68. For instance, the Qumran community had hopes of two future Messiah’s, one political and the other priestly. Their own conception was that their community was actually the true Israel. Much of their literature also expresses the apocalyptic view of the coming eschatological judgment of the nations. See the lengthy introduction of Geza Vermes in The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (London: Penguin Classics, 2004).

[29] Ben Witherington on page 3 in Paul’s Letter to the Romans has correctly noted, however, that there are no direct indications that Paul is critiquing specific Jewish Christians in Rome who are trying to make Gentile Christians follow Torah laws, and that, therefore, this letter is not a polemic against them, but rather simply an explanation or exhortation based on God’s righteousness. Even though this letter is not necessarily directed against Jewish Christians at Rome and shouldn’t be regarded as a polemic against them as such, it is of course important to note that much of Paul’s thought expressed in this letter certainly developed in such engagements (cf. Galatians) and clearly cannot be completely divorced from such contexts.

[30] Again, see representative NPP scholarship on Paul’s historical context and Romans in such works as: James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle; N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said; “The Letter to the Romans,” in the New Interpreters Bible, Vol. X. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002); Krister Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles.

[31] N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 33, 84-85, 106.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 75, 420. Emphasis in the original has been removed.

[34] Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 422.

[35] Ibid.

[36] N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 118-133.

[37] See the discussion in N.T. Wright in What Paul Really Said, 25-30, 31, 32-35. Wright convincingly argues that proper keeping of Torah was seen as the way in which many Jews in the present could be identified (or self-identified) as part of the true Israel, as those who could anticipate future vindication conditional on their continuing faithfulness to the covenant obligations as defined by the Torah. Divisions within Judaism(s), therefore, often centered on what constituted proper “Torah keeping,” and not about how one is to enter the covenant.

[38] N.T. Wright,What Paul Really Said, 132.

[39] N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 100-103.

[40] Ibid.

[41] N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, pg. 103.

[42] Richard B. Hays,”Justification,” 1133.

[43] N.T. Wright, What Paul Really Said, 118-133.

13 Replies to “Discussion and Implications of the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP)”

  1. YD: As you know, I am fully on board with the New Perspective on Paul and your reading of Romans here — which you have done an excellent job elucidating. Where the rubber hits the road is where this reading disagrees with Reformation thought. One can be “kicked out of” the covenant people or “fall from grace” by failing to keep the covenant conditions set forth in the new Christian law — the law of love. Such a view disagrees with the Reformation reading of Paul that he supported “once saved always saved.”

    I parse it simply this way for our modern concerns: a person is justified by grace as a gift. That is in other words, one is justified in the sense that one is accepted into a covenant relationship as a matter of God’s love. We are accepted as good enough for relationship with God just the way we are if we are willing to enter the covenant and keep its conditions thereafter. However, we are judged and receive reward according to our works. If our works are not in accordance with the conditions of the covenant, then we are no longer part of the covenant people — the new Israel. For Paul, the Christian community represented the new Israel, the remnant that would carry on the new covenant to be found in Christ.

    For Mormons, we now see ourselves as this new Israel carrying on the covenant. The covenant is represented in many ways in Mormonism — but we are accepted into the gospel as a matter of grace. We are in right relationship — we are justified — the minute we are willing to be in covenant relationship.

    Why do you think there has been such a backlash against the New Perspective by evangelicals like Piper et al.?

  2. TYD: Thanks for the review. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and it has influenced my latest reading of the BOM. I am fascinated that in Mosiah 18, part of the covenant was being willing to be called his people. Later in Mosiah 26, Alma was instructed on defining who was “my people.” Alma and Amulek also preach on saving his people from their sins. Is this a reasonable reading of the text? Are you aware if this has already been explored? Thanks in advance.

  3. TYD,

    This is a great summary and resource for the non-specialists out there (me). I’ve read Sanders and Wright but have a hard time convincing my fellow LDS to look into the NP on Paul. This is a great post to link to.

    As to Blake,

    Why do you think there has been such a backlash against the New Perspective by evangelicals like Piper et al.?

    Of course its because it shakes the very foundation of (mostly American) Evangelicalism. I could go on and on but suffice it to say that it exposes a certain loyalty to biblical interpretation (specifically from Calvin and Luther) over hard historical evidence to the contrary.

    But I hardly need to tell you that Blake.

  4. TYD – Not being real sharp, I am not sure if your are saying we are justified by faith or by works.

    Stephen Robinson tends to believe we are justified by faith.

    Just curious.

    Having read Blake’s books, I tend to agree with him.

  5. Such a view disagrees with the Reformation reading of Paul that he supported “once saved always saved

    I understand that “once saved always saved” (i.e. the doctrine of Eternal Security) is a relatively recent, largely Baptist innovation that has to be regarded as a heresy in terms of traditional Calvinism.

    In traditional Calvinism, the perseverance of the saints means that the true saints will indeed persevere unto salvation, but on the other hand that it is difficult to be sure who the true saints are, i.e. those who God has elected (and indeed predestinated) unto salvation. And certainly the mere confession of faith in Christ would not be regarded as particularly convincing evidence of that fact.

    Quoting from the Westminister Confession of the Faith on the subject:

    This infallible assurance [of grace and salvation] does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto.

    And therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness (WCF, Chapter XVIII, Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation)

    According to the WCF, whom God elects, he justifies, whom he justifies he sanctifies, and whom he sanctifies he saves. There is no “once” about it, nor any trivial means of determining who belongs to this set:

    Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace (WCF, iii)

  6. With regard to the general question, I think that Romans 4 is abundantly clear that justification (the state of having no sin imputed unto you) comes by (or with) faith in God and in his promises, through grace – pretty much in complete opposition to the concept of justification by group membership. Justification isn’t the end of the story of course.

    In addition, without seeing more details, it seems to me that the idea of making the interpretation of the entire epistle of Romans turn on Romans 1:17 is bizarre to say the least. The verse just isn’t specific enough for it to make a difference either way.

    Questions of theological determinism aside, what exactly about Calvin’s approach to Romans does the NPP explicitly reject? Theologically speaking, what is “new” about the new perspective on Paul? I can’t possibly imagine that the covenantal nomism described should be considered a new thing at all. Romans and other epistles are riddled with Paul’s (re)interpretation of God’s covenant with Israel in these terms. No one paying attention could possibly read Paul to be justifying antinomianism either (quite the opposite), and that includes Calvin himself.

    The primary debate in Protestant Christendom for several centuries running is the Arminian-Calvinist debate about free will and theological determinism, a debate which has enormous implications for any question of causation. There is considerable evidence (it seems to me -see e.g. Romans 8:28-30) that Paul was a theological determinist (i.e. a proto-Calvinist) as paradoxical as that position is, and the influence of that position is the main reason why Paul is often “hard to be understood”, the general soundness of his approach to notwithstanding. Does the NPP claim otherwise?

  7. Mark: I couldn’t disagree more with your reading of Paul. The entirety of Romans 11 on election and the relation of being in Christ to the covenant of Israel, and the consistent focus on the covenant and law make it clear that Paul is interested in how God maintains his justice or righteousness in the face of what would otherwise appear to be a breach of covenant by abandoning the Jews. His explanation is that God hasn’t abandoned Israel or the Jews because Christians are the new Israel with whom God keeps covenant.

    It also follows that Paul isn’t some proto-Calvinist and certainly not talking about some individual predestination or determinism. He believes that Christians and the Church are going to be saved and glorified. But of course such a position has no bearing whatsoever on salvation as particular individuals.

  8. Blake, I didn’t mention Romans 11. I referred to the following passage from Romans 8:

    For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
    Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

    Compare Ephesians 1:10-11:

    That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will:

    “Worketh all things after the counsel of his own will?” That is the doctrine of divine sovereignty in a nutshell.

    Now I agree that passages such as these do not make an iron clad case that Paul was a theological determinist. The problem is, having read much of the debate between Arminians and Calvinists on the subject, I think the latter have a rather stronger scriptural case that Paul was a theological determinist than the Arminians have that he was not. Saying nothing of the theological merits of the positions themselves, of course.

  9. TYD – Above, I only gave two options, for an answer. Here is a third, because, again, I am not sure of your position.

    Are you saying we should not even talk of justification in the Church, because the way Paul talks about it, is not the same way we understand/talk about justification today.

    And here is another question; if we can talk about it in a meaningful way, in your opinion, is justification an event or a process?

  10. CEF,

    You mentioned that you are familiar with Blake’s writings. To save you the suspense, I am largely in agreement with Blake. When I have more time to write, I will try to answer your questions more directly.



  11. Thanks for the great post. I’ve been casually studying NPP for the past year, and I like that your blog post summarizes the important issues into one tidy and accessible essay.

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