Justification and Variegated Nomism, Volume 2: The Paradoxes of Paul

Article by   July 2005

The "New Perspective (or Perspectives) on Paul" (NPP) has come to be a mainstay within academic discussions of the apostle Paul, but it has also recently begun to attract attention within the evangelical church. Ministers and teachers cannot help but take notice of a movement making such sweeping and revisionist claims. It is for this reason that one may be grateful for the labors of the twelve contributors to this volume. Offering the academic community a companion effort to the 2001 Justification and Variegated Nomism, Volume 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, these writers engage NPP interpretations of crucial Pauline passages and topics. Their criticisms are credible and even-handed, and bring to bear exegetical, biblical-theological, systematic-theological, and historical-theological insights upon a complex set of issues.

In the first chapter, Stephen Westerholm magisterially surveys NPP scholarship over the last quarter century. Although his survey is not comprehensive, he helpfully indicates the degree to which the issues and questions posed by the NPP have influenced if not determined the leading edge of Pauline scholarship. This imprint of the NPP ensures that, years after the NPP is no longer in vogue as a scholarly movement, its reverberations will be perceptible both in the academy and the church.

Other chapters mount a substantial exegetical response to NPP readings of Romans and Galatians. In a discussion of Rom 1:18-3:20, Mark Seifrid simultaneously challenges E. P. Sanders' thesis that Paul reasoned from "solution" to "plight;" and N. T. Wright's "Sin-Exile-Restoration" construct. The apostle, rather, unfolds a profound and global anthropological pessimism that distinguishes him from main-line first century Judaism. Simon Gathercole, treating Rom 3:21-4:21, ably argues that we must "reassert the importance of [justification] ... in particular, in relation to a Jewish over-confidence that is, in part, based on obedience" (147). Douglas Moo, addressing Rom 5-11, helpfully shows that NPP readings of Rom 5-8 effectively turn these chapters into an inexplicable appendage to the letter, and defends Paul's critique of the law in Romans as essentially touching "not its social function ... but its soteriological function" (206). Moisés Silva offers, in response to the proposals of Dunn and Wright, a well-digested defense of traditional readings of the phrase "works of the law" in Galatians. Martin Hengel, furthermore, shows that Paul's convictions regarding Christ, the law, and justification had been formed well before his missionary journeys. Justification, then, was hardly Paul's ad hoc effort to ward off his opponents, as many critics have contended. 

Robert Yarbrough and D. A. Carson query whether the NPP has not failed to account adequately for the salvation-historical (or biblical-theological) acumen of the apostle Paul. Dunn and Wright, for instance, are well known for stressing Paul's continuity with his Jewish past and environment. They do so partially in reaction to the inordinate emphasis that earlier critical scholars had often placed upon Paul's discontinuity with Judaism. Yarbrough provocatively suggests that had the historical critical tradition heeded the methods and conclusions of such pre-NPP salvation-historical interpreters as Hofmann, Schlatter, Goppelt, and Cullmann, a more balanced portrait of Paul's relationship with Judaism might have emerged. Carson, in an essay that in many respects ties the volume together, considers "two pairs of polarities" in the writings of the apostle: promise and fulfillment; hiddenness and revelation (397). In so doing, Carson marshals evidence both for Pauline continuity and discontinuity with his pre-Christian past, pointing the way to a more balanced synthesis than the NPP has accomplished.

Topics such as Paul's view of humanity, "righteousness," "conversion," and the nature and character of first century Judaism also receive careful attention. Timo Laato illustrates how NPP readings of Paul have neglected the genuine and central concern that the apostle shows for the plight of the individual sinner. Seifrid refutes Wright's contention that Pauline "righteousness" is divine covenantal faithfulness. In response to frequent NPP skepticism that Paul underwent a "conversion" from Judaism to Christianity, Peter T. O'Brien reviews the biblical testimony, in Acts and the letters, that Paul in fact experienced a "'paradigm shift' in life and thought" along the lines of a conversion (370, quoting R. N. Longenecker). O'Brien also challenges the adequacy of Sanders's construct of first century Judaism ("covenantal nomism"), even in modified form, to explain Paul's thought.

Finally, Timothy George and Henri Blocher offer historical and systematic theological perspectives on the issues posed by the NPP. After asking and answering in the negative whether the NPP has "properly understood the theological and historical context of the Reformers," George highlights the striking similarities between the doctrine and experiences of Martin Luther and of the apostle Paul (439). Blocher poses a number of vital theological questions that many NPP readings of Paul have either neglected or unsatisfactorily answered.
This volume illustrates at least three points that are worth underscoring in the ongoing discussion of the merits of the NPP. First, the contributions in JVN2 help to define where the lines of difference lie between the NPP and confessional Protestantism. Moo rightly observes that the NPP has attempted to effect "a rotation of Paul's central theological axis from a vertical to a horizontal orientation," witnessed in a fundamentally "ethnocentric" rather than "anthropocentric" reading of Galatians and Romans (186). Traditional renderings of such Pauline terms and concepts as "righteousness," the "works of the law," "justification," and "faith" consequently come to be either supplemented or supplanted with new meaning. O'Brien, in his essay "Was Paul a Covenantal Nomist?" helpfully draws many of these lines together. One consideration that O'Brien undertakes is N. T. Wright's understanding of Pauline justification. He argues that Wright's ecclesiological reading of the doctrine is unconvincing. Pauline justification, O'Brien maintains, is fundamentally soteriological. It is not simply a declaration, but an acquittal, a vindication in lieu of punishment (288, 289). To the degree that Wright admits justification to be soteriological, his contention that "future justification is grounded in sanctification" makes our sanctification to constitute part of the ground of our justification (292). Even a fresh effort to recast justification in fundamentally horizontal rather than vertical terms, then, cannot avoid choosing sides in the longstanding imputed / infused righteousness question. In this connection, one cannot help but appreciate Gathercole's careful demonstration that one's conception of how Paul understands the death of Christ plays a central role in one's determination of these particular questions. If one concludes, with the apostle, that Christ's death is not only penal and propitiatory, but also "the ground of the justification of the ungodly," then one's appreciation of NPP exegesis is bound to be accordingly tempered (183). 

Second, the contributors gratefully acknowledge legitimate concerns of NPP interpreters. Silva observes, for instance, that NPP interpreters of Galatians rightly stress the importance of historia salutis (salvation-historical or biblical-theological) questions to the apostle Paul. One problem arises when they proceed to exclude ordo salutis (personal salvation) questions from consideration. Why, Silva rightly asks, are "ethnic pride and (personal) self-confidence ... mutually exclusive factors" (246)?  Similarly, Carson is far from denying that there is genuine continuity between Paul's pre-Christian past and his Christian present. Carson, to be sure, differs with some NPP interpreters on the nature of that continuity and believes that they often neglect genuinely existing discontinuity. In response, he credibly attempts to pursue a synthesis that will both accommodate all the evidence and avoid the polarities of the critical discussion, polarities to which NPP proponents have more than contributed their fair share. To take a final example, Moo acknowledges with many NPP interpreters that "'people' concerns dominate Paul's theological concern" at Rom 9-11 (196). He shows, however, the way in which NPP readings of Rom 9-11 not only neglect central emphases in those chapters but also effectively distort the apostle's message. Once again, NPP discussions evidence the fact that legitimate concerns do not necessarily translate into sound, balanced exegesis.

Third, these essays sometimes evidence disagreements among the contributors. Sometimes these disagreements are important but relatively minor in scope. Seifrid and Blocher suggest that, for Paul at Rom 9-11, a "new exile" has been inaugurated for Israel in consequence of "the [Jewish] rejection of Jesus the Messiah" (500). Moo, however, prefers to term this state of affairs "a further reconfirmation of Israel's 'exilic' condition" (205). Both, in different ways, respond critically to N. T. Wright's reading of Romans particularly and to Wright's Pauline theology generally.

One disagreement, however, pertains to a central issue in the debate. Seifrid criticizes Wright's understanding of divine righteousness in justification as "covenantal faithfulness." In so dissenting from Wright, Seifrid is joined by every contributor that expresses a judgment on this question. As an alternative, Seifrid proposes that Paul has linked righteousness with the creation not with the covenant. Blocher, however, questions whether there is a "close connection of righteousness and creation" as such interpreters as Ernst Käsemann and Peter Stuhlmacher have stressed (481). He recognizes the utility of such a connection in responding to a doctrine such as Wright's. Nevertheless Blocher casts doubt upon creational righteousness as a Pauline doctrine. One's conclusion to this decisive question, of course, has implications for the shape of one's doctrine of justification. Does justification embrace the inward transformation of the sinner or is it strictly forensic? These examples illustrate the degree to which divergence from the NPP can stem from positions and conclusions that are not in all respects uniform or agreed.

When this volume as a whole is taken into consideration, one cannot help but be impressed with what is a charitable, vigorous, and well-researched contribution to one of the most important questions of the day. Readers will be gratified to see that the gospel they have embraced is capable of just such a defense. Although this work is not the last word on these issues (and, in fairness, it does not claim to be), it will be for the foreseeable future a benchmark response to the New Perspective on Paul.


Edited by D.A. Carson, Peter T. O'Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid


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