James Dunn on Germans and the NPP

James Dunn on Germans and the NPP July 30, 2013

In the latest issue of Early Christianity, James Dunn has an article on “A New Perspective on the New Perspective on Paul,” largely interacting with German scholarship as he expounds what the benefits of the NPP have been. A few interesting quotes:

[T]he ‘new perspective’ should not be defined or regarded as an alternative to the ‘old perspective’. The ‘new perspective’ does not pretend or think or want to replace all elements of the ‘old perspective’. It does not regard the ‘new perspective’ as hostile or antithetical to the ‘old perspective’. It asks simply whether the ways in which the doctrine of justification have traditionally been expounded have taken full enough account of Paul’s theology at this point. It is not necessary to call into question what have traditionally been taken to be the the central emphases of Paul’s doctrine.

The social dimension of the doctrine of justification was as integral to its initial formulation as any other. It was not a corollary which Paul drew from his primary emphasis at a later date; as an apostle he was never anything other than apostle to the Gentiles. This emphasis was at the heart of his gospel, why he felt so committed to it and why he defended it  so resolutely. A doctrine of justification by faith which does not give prominence to Paul’s concern to bring Jew and Gentile together is not true to Paul’s doctrine.

To repeat, ‘works of the law’ is a more general phrase, which refers to the principle of keeping the law in all its requirements. But when the phrase comes in the context of Paul’s mission to Gentiles, and particularly of Jewish believers trying to compel Gentile believers to live like Jews, then its most obvious reference is particularly to the law in its role as a wall diving Jew from Gentile, the boundary markers which define who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’, that is, inside the law/covenant and outside the law/covenant people.

Not a bad read, tries to bring balance to the discussion, and the footnotes give a wealth of resources on a number of recent German interactions with the NPP.

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  • Karl Karzelek

    I am glad he emphasized this point so bold. I agree especially with his view on the “works of law”. This fits better with both: the data from Second-Temple Jewish writings and the material we find in the New Testament.

    It is understandable why a new theological perspective would want to differentiate itself from the existing perspective in order to justify its existence – so to speak. But after nearly 40 years of NPP I am happy that more and more people realize that it is not “either or”, but that both can live happily together.

  • Patrick

    I have a difficult time accepting the NPP view because there is so much Pauline data about him preaching against “the works of Torah” bringing righteousness with it.
    I get that 2cd temple Jews had grace as a concept due to Yahweh electing Israel, but, reading the Gospels and Paul, the non Christian Jew seemed to have viewed righteousness via works as a legitimate “add on” to grace.

    • Josh

      Perhaps a good starting point would be to start thinking about what James means by ‘justified’ when he says ‘justified by works’. Luther of course denied James was the work of an apostle because he couldn’t reconcile it with Paul. Both Paul and James use the same Greek verb rendered as ‘justified’. These Greek verbs are δικαιοται (Trans. dikaioutai; cf. Jas 2.24; Gal 2.16; 3.11) and ἐδικαιώθη (Trans. edikaiōthē; cf. Jas 2.21,25; Rom 4.2). The NPP have been saying all along that when Paul speaks about justification, he is talking about how you can tell someone is ‘righteous’ or a ‘covenant member’. This is what James means by ‘justified by works’ – you can tell someone is righteous by their works. Applying the same concept to where Paul argues against being ‘justified by works of [jewish] law’ in favour of being ‘justified by faith’ you might then be able to see that Paul is comparing two different ways of identifying the righteous. ‘works of law’ identify the Jews only (believing and unbelieving), ‘faith in Christ’ identifies Christians (Jews and Gentiles). Keep thinking about what James means by ‘justified’ when he says ‘a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’ and you will get close to the concepts the NPP thinks Paul is employing in Romans and Galatians.

      • ounbbl

        Yaakob – by their works in their spirit-sanctified life flowing out of faith relation to Yeshua – to stand righteous (worthy) before men.
        Paul – by works to fulfill requirements of Judaic law – to be declared righteous (worthy) before God – in contrast to by faith to become identified as the member of the body of Messiah (with no boundary markers btw Jews and Gentiles).
        Yaakob and Paul both are talking at different levels or dimensions, their ideas do not come into a (literary and theological) collision.

        FYI – (Gospels, etc.) http://tiny.cc/bostonreaders – comments and criticism are very much appreciated.

        • Josh

          Paul (Rom 2.13; 5.7; 1 Tim 1.9), James (Jas 5.16) and the Jewish / Christian communities they were part of, believed that some people were righteous and were of ‘the righteous’. Even before God.

          For example;
          “5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” (Lk 1:5–6)

          ‘Righteous’ does not mean worthy. To call someone ‘righteous’ does not mean they are sinlessly perfect either. The closest associations with the noun ‘righteous’ in the bible, particularly when people are called ‘righteous’ are with ‘blameless’ and ‘innocent’, these people typically ‘walk with God’ and make a regular practice of righteousness. The term regularly denotes the identity, character and behaviour of the people of God. For the Jew, righteous behaviour consists of keeping the covenant law’ (Dt 6.25)

          Paul, like John, regards people as righteous if they regularly practice what is understood to be righteousness. John says, “7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. (1 Jn 3:7; cf. Rom 6.17-18)”

          For the Jews, to be identified as righteous meant they had to keep regular practice of the ‘works of law’. The ‘works of law’ are the commands in the Jewish law that involve some sort of ‘work’ or ‘deed’ – basically actions (E.g. Sabbaths, Jewish Festivals, Sacrificial worship) and not the prohibitions in the law (e.g. Do not murder, do not steel, do not commit adultery; prohibitions don’t require visible actions or deeds). You might want to note the way Paul views fellowship for example with respect to this distinction. In Galatians 2 Paul argues that food law or purity law observance should not be a reason for Jews to break fellowship with Gentile believers. On the other hand in 1 Cor 5.9-11 Paul says believers should not associate with those who bear the name of brother if they sin by disobeying these prohibitions.

          One issue in Romans Paul seems to be commenting on is that of Jews who we can assume observe the ‘works of law’ (because they are Jews) but who also sin by neglecting the prohibitions – do not steal, do not commit adultery. in Rom 3.20 he is arguing against the attitude of held by some Jews that by observing the ‘works of law’ they will be identified by God as righteous, even though they continue to sin by disobeying the prohibitions in the law. Paul rejects this view commenting that the recorded history of the Jews (the Law as the story of the Jews, e.g. Pentateuch, Psalms, Isaiah) speaks to them about how sinful they are (Rom 3.10-18).

          James is speaking about Justification in the sight of God. He recounts ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? (Jas 2:21; cf. Gen 22.16-18) = justified by works. God saw that Abraham offered up his son Isaac. James also recounts, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.” (Jas 2:23; Gen 15.6) = justified by faith. God knew that Abraham believed, by this means he identified him as righteous. Following these remarks, when James says, ’24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ (Jas 2:24) in both instances he is describing events where God identified Abraham as righteous.

  • Raymond

    Why do you not have a link to the magazine? What is the Volume and Number of the current issue? Thanks.