Paul and the Language of Faith, 4 Big Ideas: #4—Revisiting Paul and Covenantal Nomism

Paul and the Language of Faith, 4 Big Ideas: #4—Revisiting Paul and Covenantal Nomism March 11, 2020

For #1: see “Faith is Something You Do

For #2: see “Faith Language Points to Covenant”

For #3: see “Surprised by Luther”

Now, #4: “Revisiting Paul and Covenantal Nomism”

After the introductory chapters of my book, I get into some of Paul’s letters and his use of faith language. Perhaps the most important chapter in that section is the one on Galatians. Galatians has been an important text for thinking about Paul’s theology in general, since he was so intent upon clarifying and defending the truth of the gospel.

Galatians has also been a center of focus for debates about the “New Perspective on Paul,” Old Perspective, Paul within Judaism, and the Apocalyptic Paul. One important question that has been asked is, Was Paul a “Covenantal Nomist”? E.P. Sanders had coined this term “Covenantal Nomism” (CN) to describe the “pattern” of common Judaism of Paul’s day. CN conveyed this idea that Jews believed they were included within the covenant relationship by God’s mercy and grace, but they also had to obey Torah to stay within the covenant. Put simply, CN included both divine grace and Torah obligation. Does this work for Paul’s theology? Sanders himself said “no,” but others, like James D.G. Dunn and Morna Hooker, offered a qualified “yes.” If you put the focus on Jesus Christ, and include the transformative presence and work of the Spirit, then “yes” Paul too was a Covenantal Nomist. That is, the pattern of Pauline Christianity included both grace and obligation, because Paul too believed that believers are included into a covenant with God through Jesus Christ. As a bona fide relationship, this Christ covenant must carry expectations for believers, even though God is at work in them to will and to work.

In my Galatians chapter, I seek to affirm Dunn and Hooker (mostly), but I question the language of “Covenantal Nomism.” Nomism implies Law, which makes sense for early Judaism (Torah-centered), but not so much for Paul. As Brian Rosner convincingly argues in his book Paul and the Law, Paul carefully avoids (in Galatians and elsewhere) using language of being “under” the Law. That is, Torah for Paul cannot serve the prime mediation role of connecting God to his people. That must be only Christ (through the Spirit). Torah is not thrown out; it offers much (and necessary) wisdom for God’s people. But it has been displaced as the central platform of the covenant. In that sense, “Covenant Nomism” doesn’t work for Paul. I came up with my own terminology (however inelegant it is): “Covenant Pistism,” which refers to a covenantal faith mediated by and through Jesus Christ alone.

This approach helps to make sense of Galatians 3:23,25 where Paul refers to the coming of “faith” (pistis). Scholars have long wondered why Paul uses this language here. If Paul simply meant the coming of Christ, why didn’t he just say that? But if he meant the coming of human “faith,” that hardly makes sense because he could already point to Abrahamic faith from the distant past. And surely Paul would not put his hopes in a new kind of human “faith”? I take pistis here as a reference to a new way of being in covenant with God, a new kind of relationship, a new kind of “faith,” that is mediated only through knowing Christ by faith, not through Torah. By the time we get to Gal 3:32-25, we have already seen Paul talk about this in 2:20: “The life I now live in the body I live by pistis in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

I believe Jews before Paul and before Jesus already believed they lived by pistis (hence Hab 2:4). But I think they would have understand this pistis is via Torah. What Paul does that is innovative and even scandalous is not that he talked about pistis—Jews were already comfortable with that term to describe covenant-like relationships. Rather, it was disjoining pistis from Torah and linking pistis only to Christ. Hence, Covenantal Pistism, associating with God through Jesus Christ by pistis, not works of the Law.

Interested in reading more? Check out Paul and the Language of Faith, chapter 8, “Covenantal Pistism: Pistis and the Quest for Paul’s Soteriology.”





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