New/Old Perspective on Justification 5

The New Perspective argues that since Judaism was not a works religion, Paul was not opposing “works” righteousness. If everything in the old perspective flows out of the view that humans are merit-striving and if everything flows from a gospel that assaults human striving by replacing it with grace and faith, and if the new perspective is more accurate, then, well, lots of Paul’s theology deserves a more careful look.

Thanks to the fine efforts of James Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, one of the principals in the entire issue, J.D.G. Dunn, describes for us the “new perspective on justification” in the book Justification: Five Views (Spectrum Multiview Books).

Questions: Is the “covenant of works” in Reformed theology based on the old view of “works of the law” in Christian thinking? When you hear people criticizing the “new perspective” what are they saying? Do they reflect these four emphases of J.D.G. Dunn?

Jimmy Dunn doesn’t speak for every new perspective proponent; the new perspective has a variety of viewpoints. But this also means that many who say “the new perspective says this…” is almost certainly wrong. (Unless they are talking about a new perspective on Judaism; on that most agree.)

So, let’s learn to listen to what the principals are saying.

Dunn says the “new” perspective is not really new; it’s something Paul himself defended. What is “new” is that a neglected feature of Paul’s teaching has been neglected. Get this, too: the new perspective is not opposed to the old perspective.  [Those who think this way are creating tensions that may not even be there.]  The new perspective assumes the old perspective and seeks to make it better.

Dunn examines four themes:

1. A new perspective on Judaism. The “old” perspective got this wrong and saw Christianity replacing Judaism, saw Paul and Jesus over against Judaism, and then Luther’s law vs gospel construct became Judaism vs Christianity. So the old framework made Judaism (even the Old Testament at times) the polar opposite of all things Christian. The framework of the new perspective is that Judaism was covenant nomism, election is the grace and law is the way the elect are to live in obedience. Sacrifices took care of sin. And “righteousness” was a relational term (not just a legal term); it had to do with living faithfully in a given relationship. God’s righteousness thus means God is faithful according to the terms of the covenant. What Sanders overplayed was “covenant” and he did not adequately appreciate the diversity of nomisms in Judaism.

2. Paul’s mission is the context for his teaching on justification. Without discussing the classic view of justification (declared right before God as an act of grace), Dunn observes that one of the fundamental ideas of Paul is the inclusion of Gentiles in the one family of God. And if you read the NT carefully you see that justification emerges in Galatians and Romans, the two letters where Paul is discussing the inclusion of Gentiles and probing how God is faithful to his covenant in doing that. And this: “… the ‘all’ for Paul meant not just everyone or anyone. The ‘all’ meant specifically Gentile as well as Jew, Jew as well as Gentile” (188).

3. What Paul means by “works of the law.” Big one: Dunn argues works of the law refers to doing what the Torah says, but that this expression takes on special character in Paul: it refers especially to those works of the law that separated Jews from Gentiles (circumcision, clean and unclean laws, and Sabbath). Frequently Paul’s works of the law refer to those actions that are preventing the inclusion of Gentiles in the one people of God alongside, and equal to, Jews. In other words, this point is connected to #2 point.

In Michael Horton’s construct, which appeals often enough to the “covenant of works,” appears to me to be rooted in a view of Judaism (and therefore humanity) that the new perspective has successfully challenged.

4. The whole gospel of Paul issue. Dunn doesn’t opt as much for the faithfulness of Christ in “faith of Christ,” he discusses Paul’s view of the law (which is too wooden and stark in Luther), and judgment by works — as well as participation in Christ (and he’s against making anything the one central point).

I read the responses and the best is Bird’s: he wondered aloud if Dunn had said this way back in the 80s we might not have ever had the kerfuffle!

Well, I do have to ask if the new perspective on Judaism has not completely undercut the radicalizing of works of the law into a portrait of humans as merit-seeking, self-righteousness-making depraved humans.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jerry Sather

    Scot, I haven’t read enough of Dunn to comment on your question but I do think the issue of works righteousness in important. Preachers and parishioners alike seem to want to happen home the idea of “you can’t be saved by works.” But to whom do they usually say this? To those already in the church. The result is often that described in the old story:

    Preacher: Quit trying to be saved by your good works.
    Man in the pew looking around: “So who’s trying?”

    The end result of this is antinomianism and an Christians unable to live disciplined lives.

  • John W Frye

    Scot, your last short paragraph points to the undeniable fact that the “old perspective” starts the Story in Genesis 3, i.e., with Fall, sin, depravity, etc. It starts with *what* humans *did* rather than with *who* humans *are* (Eikons).

  • CJ Tan

    Thanks Scot for the overview.

    Would value your insight for the following:
    i) Given the definition of ‘works of the law’ in your #3 above, would you agree that these ethno-centric badges still carry a sense of ‘right’ behaviour or ‘righteousness’ behind them, given Rom 2:25? If this is true, would it be more accurate to say that ‘works of the law’ served as an ethnic boundary marker AND right behaviour? The problem that Paul sees is then that Israel which was supposed to be a special ethnic people displaying God’s holiness had failed themselves, i.e. they share in the same condemnation as the Gentiles.

    For Paul, to appeal to these ethno-centric badges for justification would be futile since the nation was already under judgment (‘curse of exile’, following NT Wright) precisely because the nation had sinned, and was no different from the rest of the world. Thus, a righteousness apart from law was required.

    ii) In the old covenant, the animal sacrifices atoned for unintentional sins (for e.g. Lev 4) but mandated death or ex-communication for idolatry, adultery, murder, etc. If this is true, should #1 that ‘sacrifices took care of sin’ be more nuanced? I do think however that the old covenant is both law and grace.

    iii) Given that there were different varieties of Judaism, one perhaps cannot completely discount that Paul could have referred to both ‘ethnic pride’ and ‘self justification’. The ethnic boundary markers of the law gave the Jews the confidence of being God’s people, but they could have been still striving on self-merit to conform to the righteous behaviour within those ethnic boundaries (cf. Rom 2:25 again). Their ‘boasting’ falls short however since the current curse of exile shows the failure to remain true to their covenant; moreover their rejection of the new act of God’s grace in Christ Jesus represents a double jeopardy on their part.

    Paul is then pointing them to covenant renewal where Israel would be restored by an act of sheer grace and the Gentiles brought in as part of that restoration just as Isaiah foretold.

    Self-merit of the Jews perhaps still had a part to play in Paul’s theology.

    Blessings,
    CJ

  • Scot McKnight

    John, there are too many old perspective folks who begin everything at Genesis 3. The only news for such folks seems to be an individualistic gospel.

    CJ Tan, these are complex issues for a blog. Yes, the badges are right behavior because they are Torah-taught behaviors. Your point there is a distinction without a difference so far as I know what Dunn is saying. On the nation failing those badges, I’m not so sure that is as easy to prove here… not sure what Dunn says … look up what he says in Romans 2:27 in his Romans.

    The whole self-justification thing … it’s complex, it involves both Judaism’s complexities as well as what Paul says… but for me this one has to be established as a pervasive anthropology on the part of Paul. Only in that way can we really get to the old perspective.

  • http://www.kingdomroundtable.blogspot.com Dru Dodson

    Dunn’s #2 and #3 sure seem persuasive. It’s hard to ignore Paul’s insistence that he’s been entrusted with a stewardship of a mystery – the one new man – and entrusted with teaching its administration. Eph 3. This is his mission and seems to shape all his instructions to the churches.

    I am wondering, again, if some of the dispute is driven by a mis-understanding of the salvation Judaism was after, which we often seem to think was “salvation” as afterlife destiny. What if salvation is living in the Kingdom, now and after and after-after. And the striving/works overturned by gospel is not as much for merit for the afterlife, but an attempt to “force God’s hand” re the Kingdom? Still learning . . .

  • Scot McKnight

    Dru, it’s not so much this world vs. The Age to Come, since they believed both. I find this way of approaching things, which is ever so common today, to be creating either a false dichotomy (either now or then) or a radical pendulum switch. We need both.

    But the big thing is that they do not appear to be as obsessed with this personal salvation issue but assumed it as a result of election.

  • http://www.kingdomroundtable.blogspot.com Dru Dodson

    Now that helps, thanks. As for “election” – seems clear to me that election in the OT is a missional choosing, not a status choosing, again whether status now or hereafter. What is the consensus re second temple Judaism, had they completely lost the missional sense of election? Seems not if Pharisees were sending missionaries to make converts? So much of our disputes seem to assume a status meaning of election, not elected for the sake of others.

  • scotmcknight

    Dru, election is both status and mission, but more corporate than individual. But again we need to avoid either ors here.

  • http://timgombis.com/ Tim Gombis

    That’s exactly right that when it comes to Paul’s articulations of justification by faith, “new perspective” proponents aren’t opposed to “old perspective” folks. It’s more the case that all Pauline scholars have worked to refine how we represent what Paul had to say. The difference between these perspectives has to do with Paul’s negative statements about “justificaion from works of law.”

    On the issue of radical statements by Dunn and Wright when the whole issue first erupted in the 1980′s: I do wonder whether it’s that early proponents should have stated things in a more measured way or if what they said was just such a shock that there’s no way that it wouldn’t cause a strong reaction.

    I’ve gone back and read Dunn’s 1982 lecture and Wright’s 1978 lecture and they state things in a pretty nuanced way. At the same time, in public lectures and many small-setting paper presentations, the anti-Luther rhetoric was way over-cooked. Francis Watson alluded to this, I think, in his 2002 lecture, “Not the New Perspective,” which is found easily on-line.

  • Isaac Larson

    Best current work on this topic, IMHO, is NT Wright’s recent “Justification.”

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    “…many who say ‘the new perspective says this…’ is almost certainly wrong.”

    According to Dunn: “The new perspective assumes the old perspective and seeks to make it better.”

    Scot, I think you just proved your own point ;)

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    Tim,

    Insofar as the NPP rejects self-justification as a real problem, I would say it’s not compatible with the old perspective. As Scot says in his last paragraph, the NPP won’t let “works of the law” refer to “merit-seeking, self-righteousness-making depraved humans.” Fair enough. But the question is then whether NPP advocates think humans are, in fact, depraved and merit seeking at all. Some seem to deny this entirely. Others are harder to pin down because of their rhetoric. When Wright, for instance, makes comments about the West getting justification wrong since at least Luther and maybe Augustine, that doesn’t do much to suggest that the old and new can live happily ever after. I know he’s toned that rhetoric down some lately, thankfully.

    What do you think?

  • http://timgombis.com/ Tim Gombis

    Peter (#12), I would that they’re incompatible where NPP folks claim that self-justification isn’t a real problem. To my mind the real value is simply that in Galatians and Romans, that’s not the best way of describing what the problem is. So, at the level of historical description, the NPP is an advance and there are differences.

    On the positive side, and when it comes to developing justification into dogma, it seems that justification by faith ought to be exploited to confront a range of problems–self-justification, ethnic superiority, etc. I’ve written on justification by faith and sports, which I think is a huge problem in contemporary America, with young athletes evaluating their identities based on success in sports or lack of it.

    So, I agree that self-justification is a problem that justification confronts. But when it comes to 1st-cent. Judaism and Paul’s precisely-aimed arguments in Rom. & Gal., I think that term ought to be left behind.

  • leah

    But the question is then whether NPP advocates think humans are, in fact, depraved and merit seeking at all.

    i think this is actually the wrong question. the NPP advocates are arguing that Paul wasn’t arguing against people who believed that humans are depraved and merit-seeking. he was arguing against people who absolutely affirmed that election was by the grace of God only. where they disagreed was that his opponents thought that the only appropriate response to that grace was to become jewish and follow torah, because those are the markers of the elect, covenant people of God. that’s why “works of the law” can’t refer to “merit-seeking, self-righteousness-making depraved humans.”

    if i am reading the NPP correctly, depravity and merit-seeking came to a head in the Augustine-Pelagius debate (this may be why Wright then makes comments about the Wedt getting justification wrong since Augustine). the NPP position is that they were simply non-issues for Paul and those he was arguing against, and therefore, not in the text, but read back into those texts by us post-Augustine Western Christians.

    i’d be very interested to see the Eastern church’s take on justification and merit. sadly, i haven’t had the time to go search out good resources yet :( seminary research is keeping me fully occupied.

  • Dana Ames

    Leah,
    the Eastern Church does not deal with the concept of “merit” at all – just not even on the radar screen. Justification as “being made right with God” also does not compute. It is Baptism – as being united to Christ – which opens the door to a life of becoming more Christ-like. This is not discussed in terms of “justification”.

    The eastern Fathers knew of Augustine and liked his devotional writing, but they pretty much ignored everything else, for various reasons. I have yet to find anything from the Greek fathers actually interacting with Augustine.

    Dana

  • Dana Ames

    As to the question of the post, I agree with Peter G.

    I haven’t been convinced that the critics of the NPP, particularly Wright’s take, are interacting with Dunn’s points at all.

    Dana

  • http://hodidaskalos.blogspot.com Brad Blocksom

    With respect to Theme 3 above (in the article, not comment #3): when Paul speaks of “works” it seems to me that he is primarily talking about “works of the law.” And yet, typically in evangelicalism, when we talk about “works” we use it to refer to “good works” – as in “no amount of good works can save us!” I have always wondered if we are extending Paul’s “works of the law” to mean something that Paul never intended (i.e. good/charitable deeds, works of merit).

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    Dana, I’m not sure if you’re crediting that last comment to me or not, but I would not say that critics of the NPP have ignored Dunn’s points. Simon Gathercole wrote his dissertation under Dunn but came to a different conclusion.

    Also, as to the Eastern church and merit, you probably know much more than me, but Brad Nassif once sent me a document on this very issue. It’s called “On Those who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works: 226 Texts [PDF]” by Saint Mark the Ascetic (5th-6th c.). Number 8 says, “Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken.” So I wouldn’t say it’s not on the radar screen entirely. Maybe just a blip though ;)

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    Tim (#13), I appreciate that comment (though I would demur on whether Paul has self-justification in mind in Rom/Gal). If more NPP folks were comfortable affirming that self-justification is a real human problem that Paul’s doctrine of justification addresses, I think there would be far less contention. By any chance, do you say anything like that in your book on Paul? I’ve only skimmed parts of it.

  • SkipR

    The whole NPP discussion is framed around Paul (by definition). But, if we are to get at the larger truth, won’t we have to consider Jesus as presented to us in the Gospels? Do we need some sort of “new perspective on Jesus” to help us properly interpret his clashes with the Pharisees over issues involving the law? And what about the parable of the (self-justifying) Pharisee and the (God-justified) publican? It’s difficult for me to read these types of passages and come up with an explanation other than that at least some of the people Jesus was dealing with thought that careful obedience to the law made them right with God. I don’t think we should make this a lens through which we read everything in the Gospels. But, I also find it hard to ignore. And, I find it so experientially true among the people I know, whether they be Jew, non-Christian theist, or “gentile” Christian! Don’t we all find ourselves from time to time thinking (praying would be too blatant), “O Lord, thank you that I am not like…..well, you know….that sinner over there.”

  • Dana Ames

    Peter,

    in comment 16 I was saying that I agree with you, and my own further thought was that I don’t think some folks are engaging with the arguments; I wasn’t attributing the latter to you. Sorry for the confusion.

    As to Mark the Monk, well, he’s not talking about the theological concept of “merit”, but rather two equally wrong attitudes on the part of believers.

    This from Orthodoxwiki, from the article on “Grace” (which in Orthodoxy is not something “outside of God” which God somehow bestows, but is the actual work of the Holy Spirit inside a person):

    “The Church emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian life, and has maintained ascetical disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving, not as a way to make penance for past sins nor to build up grace, but as a means of spiritual discipline, to help reduce sin in the future. There is no doctrine of purgatory or ‘treasury of surplus merit.’”

    And from the article on “Original Sin”, a quote from a Vatican-approved document:

    “For the Greek Fathers, as the consequence of Adam’s sin, human beings inherited corruption, passibility, and mortality, from which they could be restored by a process of deification made possible through the redemptive work of Christ. The idea of an inheritance of sin or guilt – common in Western tradition – was foreign to this perspective, since in their view sin could only be a free, personal act. . .”

    (“Personal” in the theological sense: a being as a center of willing action.)

    It really is different in the East. And I found that much of what N.T. Wright (I know his work; don’t know the other NPP folks except as NTW – and Scot – quote them) discusses as the “Israel narrative” and its ramifications is much more in keeping with Eastern theology than with Western.

    Dana

  • http://timgombis.com/ Tim Gombis

    Peter (#19), in the Paul book I deal with the specific problems he’s addressing in those letters. I think they’re contingent situations in Rom & Gal, and not easily abstracted when it comes to justification. I think it’s important to say that whatever Paul was addressing in those letters, if he did run across self-justification, he’d definitely see it as a problem to be confronted. So, just because that may not be the exact issue in those letters doesn’t mean that he would endorse it, for sure.

  • davey

    Scot: ‘If everything in the old perspective flows out of the view that humans are merit-striving and if everything flows from a gospel that assaults human striving by replacing it with grace and faith’

    See 13, below.

    4 Scot: ‘the badges are right behavior because they are Torah-taught behaviors … On the nation failing those badges, I’m not so sure that is as easy to prove here’

    The prophets and Jesus and Paul surely are saying Israel has failed its ‘badges’ of ‘Torah-taught behaviours’.

    ‘The whole self-justification thing … it’s complex, it involves both Judaism’s complexities as well as what Paul says… but for me this one has to be established as a pervasive anthropology on the part of Paul. Only in that way can we really get to the old perspective’

    Only if the old perspective depends on showing ‘self-justification’ is the problem. But the old perspective doesn’t look to me to be either saying that (exclusively) or needing it (see 13, below).

    6 Scot: ‘the big thing is that they do not appear to be as obsessed with this personal salvation issue but assumed it as a result of election’

    For which assumption the prophets and Jesus and Paul castigated them.

    13 Tim Gombis: ‘self-justification … in Galatians and Romans, that’s not the best way of describing what the problem is … when it comes to 1st-cent. Judaism and Paul’s precisely-aimed arguments in Rom. & Gal., I think that term ought to be left behind’

    Self-justification (merit-striving) is an issue, but also a straw man depended on by NPP. It doesn’t matter whether they were self-justificatory or not (though some were) they still would have to keep the whole law to be God’s true people, and they didn’t keep all the law, so they weren’t God’s true people, and so weren’t saved. I’m glad Scot hasn’t been distracted by that other straw man of the NPP people, about what being ‘saved’ means – it doesn’t matter whether it’s this world or some other, they weren’t saved in this world or any other. ‘Grace and faith’ replaces otherwise non-forgiven sin, including ‘human striving’.

    14 leah: ‘the NPP advocates are arguing that Paul wasn’t arguing against people who believed that humans are depraved and merit-seeking. he was arguing against people who absolutely affirmed that election was by the grace of God only. where they disagreed was that his opponents thought that the only appropriate response to that grace was to become jewish and follow torah, because those are the markers of the elect, covenant people of God’

    The ‘markers’ were not only an ‘appropriate response’ but Paul says they were a necessary response (for those without Christ).

    ‘“works of the law” can’t refer to “merit-seeking, self-righteousness-making depraved humans.”’

    Well, they can inclusively refer to that, in that the works of the law demanded people not sin.

    20 SkipR: ‘new perspective on Jesus’ – good idea! NPP people might have to get to grips with what the position of Jews actually was in other than their characteristic inadequate way.

  • Tim

    What! No Lutheran perspective?

  • Chris

    #23

    davey, the Jews of Paul’s did not and could not keep the whole law. There was no way they could–not that you disagree with this. You say they weren’t God’s people because they did not keep the whole law? Hmmm I wonder what the point of the sacrifices and the Day of Atonement was all about?

    Isn’t it probable that the Jews knew they couldn’t be 100% obedient? Hence, the sacrifices for atonement? Maybe i have misread you—could you clarify?

  • davey

    25 Chris: ‘#23 davey, the Jews of Paul’s did not and could not keep the whole law. There was no way they could–not that you disagree with this. You say they weren’t God’s people because they did not keep the whole law? Hmmm I wonder what the point of the sacrifices and the Day of Atonement was all about?

    Isn’t it probable that the Jews knew they couldn’t be 100% obedient? Hence, the sacrifices for atonement? Maybe i have misread you—could you clarify?’

    Paul argued against various misunderstandings Jews, and Christians, had of Judaism and Christianity. He opposed to those his own understanding of Judaism and Christianity. Some Jews thought they were saved just because they were Jews, some thought it was also necessary to do the law as best they could to be saved (and where they sinned, there were the prescribed sacrifices to make things right). Paul said just being a Jew was not enough. He also said being a Jew and doing the law as best they could wasn’t enough (the prescribed sacrifices were insufficient to make up for sin). He said the true people of God among the Jews were those who had faith in God. (My own view is that even in Old Testament times non-Jews who had faith in God were also God’s true people, though their explicit knowledge of God might be variously defective. I’m not only referring here to God-fearers, but even to such as American Indians.) The ethnic people, the Jews, were not as such the people of God, but a mix of true people of God and others. The ethnic people, this mix, were a people given a modicum of explicit knowledge of God that non-Jews didn’t get, but this knowledge was not in itself salvific. Paul explained that doing the law would save them if they managed to do it all perfectly (that sacrifices for sin were offered only showed them to be sinners, the sacrifices did not make things right so that having sinned and lost salvation they could regain it by offering the sacrifices). But, since nobody did the law perfectly is why they need Christ. God did privilege the ‘mix’ over non-Jews in various ways in their history, but this was not salvific privilege, only temporal benefits. Even non-Jews got some temporal benefits from God. The Jews, the mix, were not given salvation, they were given ‘the oracles of God’ Romans 3.2.

  • Josh

    Scot,
    You probably know the answers to these, so here is my 10c for your survey…

    1) Is the “covenant of works” in Reformed theology based on the old view of “works of the law” in Christian thinking?
    If by ‘old view’ you mean OPP, very much so. The Covenant of Works, IAO, and the traditional protestant view of ‘works of law’ held by both Luther and Calvin all hold in common the same definition and perceived instrumentality of ‘works’.

    2) When you hear people criticizing the “new perspective” what are they saying?
    In most instances (I think there are exception) there has been a basic neglect to really try and understand what they are putting forward. Especially with respect to the tenses of salvation. e.g. A fair amount of Wrights interpretations assume a starting point of already ‘saved’ looking back to past events in Christ with entailed assurance, seeking now to pursue holiness, and looking forward to future judgement by Christ. OPP on occasion is so fixated on ‘how can I a sinner be saved before a righteous God?’ it seems to forget that those who have faith have already been saved and justified (Eph 2.8-9; Rom 5.1; Tit 3.5; 1 Cor 6.11).

    3) Do they reflect these four emphases of J.D.G. Dunn?
    I haven’t read enough of the critiques of Dunn’s writings to know. Most criticisms of NPP Ive seen start briefly with Sanders, then move quickly to Wright. But as per some of the above comments, you paraphrased Dunn saying ‘Sacrifices took care of sin.’ There seems to be a consistent rejection by OPP the Jews believed levitical sacrifices atoned for their sins. OPP simply wont believe the Jews held this view. Again this challenges the perceived definition and instrumentality of ‘works of law’.

  • jacob z

    Just want to say, as I work in college ministry in historically Christian cities there are many kids I meet who are “legalists” and it is very freeing to them that God accepts them apart from their good works.

    Yet I remain convinced by New Perspective sketches of Judaism and subsequent readings of the NT.

    As I see it, I would take the NP readings on an exegetical level and my first pastoral move to my college kids would be exposing our own works as a way to be “in”.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X