What He Wanted Us to Learn from His Epistles
What was Paul teaching us in his epistles? Ever since Martin Luther and the Reformation he inspired 500 years ago, we’ve thought we knew. However, in the last 30 years, a different understanding has been proposed as the result of research to understand Jewish thinking on their relationship to God in first-century Israel, so that Paul’s messages could be interpreted within this context that surrounded him.
I will summarize the main points of the results of this revised understanding of Paul, known loosely as The New Perspective on Paul (NPP). For each of these points, we’ll also summarize the arguments of those of the traditional Lutheran/Reformed scholarship and faith (“traditionalists”) against these new interpretations of their centuries-old ideas. Kent L. Yinger has written a wonderful book[i] capturing simply and objectively (i.e. from a non-hostile point of view) the essence of the NPP position, and the arguments raised against it, which I highly recommend.
Finally, I feel it is necessary to interject into this debate that I believe both camps are wrong as to the meaning of the primary concept at the core of their dispute — faith. This is an error not of commission, as I’m not aware that discussion of the term has even come up in the lobbing back-and-forth of scholarly papers given at conferences exploring their differences. It is an error of omission – of assuming that the concept they both think of when reading it in Paul is not only the same, but accurate. I will contend it is not – that the concept Paul spoke of is not at all the one we moderns think of.
So let’s look at the key points in this New Perspective on Paul, and why traditionalists so violently reject it.
The New Perspective on Paul – Overview
If we’re going to understand what the Apostle Paul was actually saying, we’re going to need to know more than the average Christian does of what he meant by the terms in his messages he used to express his ideas. What did “works of the law” mean to him? What did “justification” mean? What did “righteousness” or the “righteousness of God/Christ” mean, not to mention what did “in Christ” mean to Paul?
In the 1500’s Martin Luther experienced an epiphany in meditating on Paul’s doctrine of justification (Rom 1:16-17), as expressed principally in Romans and Galatians, but transcending most of his epistles.
At issue for Luther was the teaching of the church that, despite his sincere belief in Christ as his Lord, he was in a continual state of striving toward faithful holiness, administered and adjudicated by the church within its monastic system, to achieve acceptance by God; a goal, he agonized, he could never reach. (Of course, there was also the issue of the church’s abject corruption in exploiting the faithful through selling indulgences and the like. But that was not, specifically, a doctrinal debate.)
Luther’s new understanding of acceptance by God through his doctrine of “justification by faith”, “sola fide”, transformed the church and created Protestantism. There is no more revered doctrine in Reformed Protestantism than this.
The NPP has made the claim that we have misunderstood Paul’s statement leading to Luther’s doctrine because we don’t truly understand the meanings Paul understood of his words:
- justified ( δικαιόω dikaióō, dik-ah-yo’-o); justification (1347. δικαίωσις dikaiōsis, dik-ah’-yo-sis)
- righteousness ( δικαιοσύνη dikaiósunē, dik-ah-yos-oo’-nay;),
- ‘works of the law’ ( ἔργον, ἔργω ergón, ergō + 3551. νόμος, νέμω nómós, nemō, nom’-os),
- imputed/counted ( λογίζομαι lógizómai, log-id’-zom-ahee;).
Now, of course, meanings have been given to these words. From Augustine (though he didn’t know Greek) to Luther, the reformers and those who shared in their legacy, the concepts of these words have been firmly assigned. And, using those meanings, doctrines have been constructed based on how Paul uses those words. These doctrines are the bedrock of traditional Reformed Protestant belief. So at the very least, we should ask ourselves if we have the same understanding of the concepts behind these words that Paul did, so that we can hopefully understand what he wrote about them.
Everyone who has spent any time learning the tenets of Christian faith has heard that the phrase “by grace through faith” describes his path to “justification” before God (and heaven after death). Its interpretation, and that of companion verses Paul uses to disparage “works” or “works of the law”, has resulted in several core, orthodox doctrines being built based on them. The traditionalist view of the doctrine of justification is founded on two key ideas:
- justification of the sinner is by God’s grace through faith (alone) (sola fide)
- justification = a permanent conversion to God and a pass to His heaven, i.e. salvation
I’m not sure where point 2, above, came from. But at this point, it is firmly entrenched in the traditionalist’s theology.
NT Wright sees justification a bit differently. I would say he sees point 1 precisely as stated. The issue arises in the meaning of the status of “justified”, and what that condition really means.
Wright calls our attention to the language of justification claiming (by the way, in agreement with the reformers) that “justification” and “righteousness” and so on are the language of the Jewish law court – what the reformers refer to as “forensic” terminology. The idea is that there is a judge who is presented a case involving a defendant (you) and an accuser. The judge hears the case and then makes his judgement – either “right(eous)” or “condemned”. The judge’s own righteousness, based on his track record of justly adjudicating His cases, plays no role in your status other than to ensure that it has been justly assigned.
But what is achieved in the pronouncing of the status of “justified” onto a faithful defendant? Wright, quite controversially, claims this means that he is incorporated into God’s covenant people, as opposed to simply having their sins forgiven, who is then expected, through the equipping and indwelling of the Spirit and God’s grace, to live the Christ-led life. And that it is the “fruit” of his life that will be judged on the last day (2 Cor 5:10).
This, it seems to me, is where the wheels come off in the debate between the two views. Traditionalists will not countenance the interjection of “works” into the discussion of justification – irrespective of whether we’re talking about before or after it. We should notice, however, that the “works” being spoken of by Wright are those that follow conversion and have nothing whatsoever to do with the individual’s pronouncement as “justified”.
Now Wright does infuriate his traditionalist critics in positing that justification – judgement of righteousness by God – happens twice; once at the believer’s conversion, and once on the Last Day.
Are the two (Wright and his reformed critics) describing a different process or event? No, they’re not. Both agree that the mechanism of being judged righteous is that the individual defendant has placed his faith in Christ as Lord and that He died and rose from the dead to remove sin and its penalty from God’s people – every single one of them. Wright simply emphasizes God’s context for justifying you through faith in Christ, rather than myopically focusing on “my sins being forgiven”. Obviously, my sins have to be forgiven me in order for me to enter citizenship in God’s Kingdom, under His covenant, as one of His people.
As for the criticism of Wright’s exegesis of the two judgements – one resulting in our justification now, and one on the last day, this is, I think, simply a matter of the reformed tradition never paying much attention to the “each one of us will give an account of himself” verses (Mat 25:31-46, John 5:29, Heb 9:27, etc.) . And it seems that in an attempt to completely remove the sinner from any accountability in the salvation doctrine, the church has ended up tossing out much of what the Bible clearly teaches concerning his expected obedience to his King (John 14:15, John 15:14, 2 John 1:6, Rom 2:6-8, James 1:25).
Wright has much more to say about the position of justification in one’s salvation, which I encourage you to read in the notes.[ii]
“Works of the Law”
The traditional protestant understanding of Paul’s distinction between grace-enabled justification by faith (alone), and justification by “works of the law”, revolves around its understanding of those “works of the law” as moral efforts undertaken by the Jews of the day in following their law in order to achieve God’s favor/justification – a practice termed “works righteousness”. In other words it is individual men trying to gain God’s favor (i.e. to result in Him declaring them “justified” or “righteous”) by their own efforts.
Is gaining favor with God by the Jew’s own efforts what Paul was talking about?
In the 1970s NPP got its start when E.P. Sanders wrote a book entitled “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” in which he made the case that Paul’s teaching against pursuing “works of the law” to achieve standing with God was a misunderstanding by Luther and those of his school of thought. Sanders cited research into early rabbinic (and, by extension, first-century Jewish) thought that found no evidence that Jews of that period had any thought that by simply keeping the Mosaic Law they were somehow achieving moral standing with God. They understood that by grace God had chosen them for salvation out of Egypt, and so they understood their obligation under the Mosaic Covenant was simply to obey God’s laws, thus preserving their membership in the covenant people of God.
Sanders argued that what “works of the law” meant to Paul was law-keeping that a) demonstrated that they were Jewish, God’s chosen covenant people (e.g. keeping Sabbath, circumcision, hygiene and food laws), and b) thereby keeping God’s righteousness for themselves (“a righteousness of their own”; Romans 10:3), i.e. apart from gentiles.
To Sanders, first-century Jews didn’t think they had to pursue God’s favor by their works – they already had it by His covenant promise. All they had to do was preserve their Jewish identity – to remain in the clan — to remain under God’s established covenant with them, a concept he called “covenantal nomism”. Another NPP proponent, James D.G. Dunn, in commenting on Sanders’ position, says:
“The Judaism of what Sanders christened as “covenantal nomism” can now be seen to preach good Protestant doctrine: that grace is always prior; that human effort is ever the response to divine initiative; that good works are the fruit and not the root of salvation.”[iii]
(If this idea of Israel’s belief in and dependence on God’s grace is somewhat new to you as it was me, have a look at these statements[iv] from the Dead Sea Scrolls.)
Kent Yinger summarizes the point in his book[v] this way:
‘Where Paul differed fundamentally from his Jewish tradition was not over the role of grace, faith, and obedience in salvation, but whether salvation was tied to being Jewish or not. In Jewish covenantal nomism, God’s election of Israel was fundamental; God’s saving work was directed only toward his covenant people. In order to take part in this salvation one needed to be a member of this people. This is what Paul’s opponents in Galatia were demanding, that uncircumcised Gentile converts join the covenant people by circumcision. They “try to compel you to be circumcised” (Gal 6:12)’
Paul’s condemnation of this behavior by his brethren was that with the arrival of Christ, the Messiah, everything had been changed and made new. God’s covenant with the Jews had fulfilled its purpose. Paul was trying to convince them to abandon their dependence on their identity through their old practices in accordance with the now-fulfilled Law, and instead believe Christ (Romans 7:1-25) and enter into God’s New Covenant.
Now there are many traditionalist scholars that dispute Sanders’ conclusions about the first-century Jewish mindset and its understanding of what it was accomplishing by keeping the law. At the very least they make a believable case that there was no monolithic, standard Jewish mindset in the day, just as there isn’t today. (It’s almost oxymoronic to assert that “Jews think…” or “Jews thought…” since there are nearly as many views of “being Jewish” as there are Jews.) It is true that the Bible does teach against pious self-righteousness through human effort; just not Paul (e.g. Isaiah 64:6). But the logic of Sanders’ argument, that first-century Jews perceived law-keeping as Jewishness-keeping, I believe, as well as its first-century evidence is very difficult to simply dismiss out of hand.
There is another way to interpret Paul’s admonitions regarding “works of the law”, and it has nothing to do with what those “works” were. Paul spends Romans 1-3 and half of Romans 5 making the case that everybody is sinful, and as a result, not fit to live with God. At one time, before his revelation, Paul actually thought he was “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Phl 3:6) Following his epiphany on the Damascus Road, he understood that he was wrong about his righteousness: “there is none righteous, no not one.”
He realizes he must inform his Jewish and Jewish-Christian (not to mention Gentile) brothers of this new understanding. And so, he attacks their behavior of doing Jewish things to stay in the camp of God’s chosen, covenant people, as a way to say “because of our sin, we never really were justified before God — works or no works. We weren’t faithful to Him and His Law because of our sinfulness.” Romans 6-8 then explains that the only way to justification and salvation is through our faith in Christ (of which Abraham’s faith is our model (Romans 4:23-24)).
Seen this way, the disputes between traditionalists and NPP proponents over which kind of works Paul was speaking of seems silly. Paul’s message is far more stark, powerful and profound: “Christ is the only way to God’s acceptance and favor. Therefore, trust Him only, not your heritage.” (James Dunn has a very illuminating explanation[vi] of the cult-like sparing between different 1st Century Jewish factions concerning which of them performed the law (works of the law) correctly or rightly. Each claimed it was their manner of following the law that was the ‘right’ way, making them righteous, while all the others were not right, and therefore ‘sinners’ – those missing the mark of righteousness.)
The traditionalist view of the Gospel of Christ is that “Christ died to atone for your sins so that if you believe in Him you will have eternal life”, or words to that effect. Obviously, it has much more depth than this bumper sticker, but this is the gist of it. The key feature to observe here is that it is exclusively from man’s perspective. “I’m a sinner. I’m unable to correct my sinfulness. Therefore I need God to do it for me, and He has in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.” “I, I’m, my, I, me…Christ Jesus”.
What was Christ’s death and resurrection about from God’s perspective? Well, that’s quite a long story beginning with Creation and Eden but continuing to the story of Abraham’s faithfulness to God that he would, in fact, be the father of many nations and that through him would come a blessing for “all nations”. The vehicle for that blessing was to be Abraham’s “seed”, i.e. one of his progeny.
Fast forward 1600 years to first-century Israel and we find Jesus claiming, after reading Isaiah’s prophecy of His coming that “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21). Then follows the story and passion of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This sacrifice and resurrection inaugurated what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and what had been prophesied by Jeremiah 31:31-34 as the “new covenant”, which also fulfilled Israel’s destiny in God’s plan.
This is what Paul understood the Gospel to be: Jesus has come and died and risen to God and so redeemed His people – those of Abraham’s faith, the Jew first but also the Greek (which Paul claims is the “great mystery” revealed to him: Eph 3:1-6). Death was defeated, sin was defeated, and the Holy Spirit would be poured out on the faithful to enable these ordinary sinners to live the life Christ gave them. Jesus was now Lord and King – their Messiah, and one day He would return both to judge and to renew all of Creation. Jesus’ coming changed everything.
This is the reading of Paul’s understanding of the Gospel by NT Wright, now probably the most prominent figure associated with the NPP. Here’s the way Wright puts it in defending his position at a conference in Edinburgh:
For Paul, the announcement or proclamation of Jesus as Lord was itself the ‘word of God’ which carried power. Putting together the various things he says about the preaching of the gospel, the word, and the work of the Spirit, we arrive at the following position: when Paul comes into a town and declares that Jesus is Lord, no doubt explaining who Jesus was, the fact and significance of his death and resurrection, and so on, then the Spirit is at work, mysteriously, in the hearts and minds of the listeners, so that, when some of them believe in Jesus, Paul knows that this is not because of his eloquence or clever argument but because the announcement of Jesus as Lord functions as (in later technical language) the means of grace, the vehicle of the Spirit. And, since the gospel is the heraldic proclamation of Jesus as Lord, it is not first and foremost a suggestion that one might like to enjoy a new religious experience. Nor is it even the take-it-or-leave-it offer of a way to salvation. It is a royal summons to submission, to obedience, to allegiance; and the form that this submission and obedient allegiance takes is of course faith. That is what Paul means by ‘the obedience of faith’. Faith itself, defined conveniently by Paul as belief that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead, is the work of the Spirit, accomplished through the proclamation. ‘No-one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.’
Now, we should note that this gospel says nothing whatsoever about the sinner and his lot. But again, we’re looking at this story from God’s perspective, not our own. What was God doing here? If these are truly the thoughts that occupied Paul’s mind when considering what he called the “Gospel” (1 Cor 15), then these are the thoughts that we should hold in our minds when reading what he has to say about it while being mindful of Paul’s admonition not to proclaim “another” gospel (Gal 1:7).
The Evangelical Church has become so myopic on marketing Jesus’ salvation of sinners that it has for all intents and purposes abandoned the broader “why” of the story. If the proclamation of the full story is power to salvation, perhaps we should give it a bit more attention.
Righteousness (the Righteousness of God)
Another sticking point in the traditionalist-NPP dispute is the meaning of Paul’s use of the phrase “righteousness” or “the righteousness of God”. This gets at the traditional understanding that when one is justified by faith he inherits or otherwise receives God/Christ’s own righteousness. This model of “righteousness” is that it is a possession of God that is fungible – that is, that it can be transferred around, and it is “given” (see below) to you, personally, upon your conversion.
This concept comes from Luther’s reading of 2 Cor 5:21[vii]. But this is not Paul’s understanding according to the New Perspective (e.g. Rom 3:21-22 NIV God’s righteousness is “given” “to all who believe”). According to the NPP, Paul is saying that your justification is the result of a judgement by the judge; not a transfer of the judge’s status. Moreover, you, the individual, “possess” no quality of righteousness at any point. Paul’s concept here seems to be that if you are (his favorite phrase) “in Christ” by faith, you partake of His righteousness.
Perhaps this idea of “righteousness transfer” emanated in some way from the King James translation of Romans 4:22-24, and similar verses, and their use of the term “imputed”. The word itself (3049. λογίζομαι lógizómai, log-id’-zom-ahee) means to “estimate”; “to take an inventory”. We might say we are “assessed” as righteous. The meaning of conveyance or transmission is not present. Perhaps through repeated misusage of the word as meaning “transfer”, we’ve misled ourselves.
Why is this an important issue, and one that draws the ire of traditionalists? I would speculate that it has to do with their assumption of the finality and conclusiveness of justification by faith as a singular event. We need to recall that in the standard, traditional understanding of the gospel, justification is essentially the same thing as salvation. One’s “ticket has been punched”. Now, along comes Wright (and others) and says “Hang on, there’s a bit more to it than that according to Paul”.
What’s inexplicably missing in the traditionalist’s understanding seems to be that, having been justified by faith and welcomed into God’s covenant people, they’re “equipped for every good work” (1 Tim 3:17). Of course, this is accomplished as a result of the Spirit of God being given to you (2 Cor 5:5) to work through you to accomplish God’s purposes. Logically, it would follow that His expectation of this equipping is that we will, in obedience, actually use it to carry out those good works for Him. However, you don’t find that understanding and message being featured or even taught in churches led by most pastors trained in reformed tradition (in contradiction of the Bible – Mt. 5:16, Gal 6:9, 2 Tim 3:17, Titus 3:14).
This particular disagreement between the traditional and NPP schools of thought seems to be more one of relative focus. Reformed protestant churches have for several centuries virtually ignored the purpose and work of the Spirit. Their dynamic of absolute phobia of “works” while ignoring the admonition to the “obedience of faith” enabled in the believer by the Spirit is indeed strange. They nonetheless claim they are well aware of the applicable bible verses, and that good “works” should be the natural result of faith. So we have a dichotomy within reformed Protestantism, and one I’d like to examine a bit more.
As mentioned earlier, the NPP and the traditionalist have not disputed (as far as I know) the nature or meaning of the term “faith” Paul teaches, and claims was always the path to God’s justification.
Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
The word rendered “faith” here in Strong’s dictionary is 4102. πίστις pistis, pis’-tis;
From 3982; persuasion, that is, credence; moral conviction (of religious truth, or the truthfulness of God or a religious teacher), especially reliance upon Christ for salvation; abstractly constancy in such profession; by extension the system of religious (Gospel) truth itself.
Even in this Christian dictionary’s definition, notice that there is no representation of the idea of “intellectual agreement”, i.e. deciding that something is true. Rather, it talks about “conviction”, “reliance”. The Bible’s word typically translated “believe” (e.g. Rom 1:16) is a cognate of this word: 4100. πιστεύω pisteuō, pist-yoo’-o;
From 4102; to have faith (in, upon, or with respect to, a person or thing), that is, credit; by implication to entrust (especially one’s spiritual well being to Christ).
Here too we don’t find “intellectually agree with”, but instead “entrust”.
The question I’m raising here is this: ‘When we say “I believe in Jesus Christ” or “I have faith in Jesus Christ”, what are we saying about ourselves?’ And are we saying the same thing Paul was saying? From seeing the lives of so many that say these things, that are indistinguishable from the lives of those who don’t, I believe it’s a valid question to ask. Have we properly understood what Paul was telling us about God’s New Covenant and our path into it? Based on his quote (above, speaking of the Gospel message), I believe NT Wright agrees with me that we have not:
“It is a royal summons to submission, to obedience, to allegiance; and the form that this submission and obedient allegiance takes is of course faith.”
In looking for the answer, I came across a couple of lexical resources[viii] whose definitions of these words provide additional insights. Here, for example, is a part of a website entry for “believe”, pisteuō:, that uses both the Bauer (BDAG) and Brown-Driver (BDB) resources to examine the meanings of the comparable Hebrew terms:
Pisteuo: support. (cf. πιστεύω below). The basic sense of support is stated by Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB) Lexicon: 1. as vb. support” (pg. 52). See Photographic Lexical archive. This is the most important theological word in the Hebrew language. The fundamental sense of the root is “support”, to which words like Amen, faithfulness, faithful, owe their origin, often mistranslated or misinterpreted as barely “believe”, “believer”, “faith” or “truly”. It is critically important to understand that in Hebrew and Greek, the words typically translated faithfulness, faith, fidelity, faithful, believe, believer, Amen, truly, so be it ALL come from one root in Hebrew, and one root in Greek, and that theologically the Hebrew sense determined the Greek sense. Read the lexical definitions, and then work through the concordance at the right.
Hiphil: adds the idea of make or cause to the verb, variously expressed by prefixing words like give, put, find, bring, make to the verb idea.
- put one’s support (in), (on) or (to) someone or something.
commit oneself to, put oneself in the care of, entrust oneself to
- give one’s support to someone or something.
commit to, obey, comply with, be faithful to, be loyal to, intrust to
- make stick fast to something or make stand fast,
stand still, immobolize
- find support in, or for someone or something.
- hang or fasten support to someone or something.
- one supporting another.
committing, being faithful to, supporting, being loyal to
- support of a truth or fact.
- a physical support.
temple pillars, supports, a support
- abstractly: supportiveness.
faithfulness, commitment, loyalty, steadfastness, determination
faithful, steadfast, determined, supported, sticking-fast, confirmed
Interjection: Amen let it be supported, which is a loan word from Hebrew directly into Greek, English and other languages. It was meant to be learned and used in Hebrew, not translated as typically “truly”.
πιστεύω: for the verb sense, it is best to compare the noun and adjective uses of this word from BDAG, “commitment”, hence to commit, and “faithful”, hence to be faithful, committed, supportive. Sometimes, the King James version was compelled to get it right.
And here’s what it has to say about “faith”, pistis:
pistis: Πίστις. From Hebrew אמוּנָה, basic sense is “support” from the verbal root אָמַן, “support” (BDB).
- In an abstract sense, the quality of being supportive:
1a. support, supportiveness
1b. faithfulness (BDAG)
1c. commitment (BDAG)
1d. fidelity (BDAG)
1e. loyalty (BDAG)
1f. reliability (BDAG)
1g. trustworthiness (LSJ)
- An unshakable, firm support, or pursuit of a goal:
2a. steadfastness (BDB, Hebrew)
2b. determination (firm or fixed intention to achieve a desired end)
Obviously, the common root of these cognates in the Hebrew is our word “support”. This strikes the modern ear as quite odd. Does this mean that when I say “I believe Christ” or “I have faith in Christ” I’m saying “I support Christ”, like you would say you “support” some political candidate or cause? No, I don’t think so. Its sense seems to be more of supporting by faithful commitment, perhaps as a subject would “support” his King. It’s trying to convey the idea of devotion; absolute support. It’s not “I’ll support him up to a point”. It’s “He has my devoted support.” It seems that in the verb form it says “I put my support in/on Christ”. In other words, I’m identifying Christ as the means of my support. I’ve “found my support” in Him or “I’ve attached myself to Him for my support”.
In other words, the image here is a relationship of my “devotion to”, “dependence on” or “allegiance to”, on the one hand, and my assured provision (support or upholding) on the other. And from this position, I am loyal, faithful, committed, steadfast, trustworthy, reliable and determined.
Now if the “faith in” or “believe” phrase is found in relationship to “the gospel” (as in Mark 1:15), then the sense of “support” changes slightly to ‘commitment to’ or ‘giving one’s support to’ or ‘reliability of’.
All of these word pictures of the meaning of these ancient words, we must understand, were the word pictures in Paul’s head when he used them. The point is that they convey much more the idea of an exclusive, absolute personal dependence on and commitment to Christ/the Gospel than we get in the 21st century West when reading or hearing “believe” or “have faith”.
This is a huge part of Paul that we need to recover from his original words. When we read “by grace you have been saved by faith”, we ought to have a pretty good idea of the concept in Paul’s mind when he used that word, starting with the image of the completely submitted and sold-out Abraham with his Isaac on Moriah. Otherwise, we do great damage in promoting this verse using some modern counterfeit version of the meaning of “faith”.
You can help yourself learn this new understanding of these words (if, in fact, you see it as a kind of watered-down “agreement”) by substituting some of their lexical equivalents in specific verses that use them and see if you don’t find a stunningly different message. For example:
For by grace you have been saved through absolute devotion to Christ.
For by grace you have been saved through total dependence on Christ.
For by grace you have been saved through all-in commitment/allegiance to Christ.
Can the new and old exegesis of Paul’s writings be reconciled? And if so, how?
The traditionalist interpretation as relating to personal sin and salvation is largely unique to Luther’s circumstances and epiphany in the 16th century. He was looking for his own salvation from his conscience’s felt-inadequacy and found it. He did so by overlooking the particular context of Paul’s messages vis-a-vis his Jewish brethren, to lift them to a level of abstraction suitable to his personal situation. And it stuck.
It is ironic in a way that to get to the view of unique personal salvation in Paul, one has to raise the level of abstraction of what he said specifically to specific audiences. To see the far broader but more significant story Paul is teaching, you have to eliminate abstraction – to look more specifically at the Biblical and historical context of what God had done in Christ, in order to understand the teaching as it was intended by Paul.
If this New Perspective is even close to correct, what does this mean for the Church? The institutional church is littered with doctrinal controversies each of which seems to produce yet another split creating yet another doctrinal faction. And much of this doctrinal debate is over the reformers’ interpretation of their “true doctrines” in increasingly finite detail.
What if a perspective on the Biblical texts of Paul could be more-or-less universally accepted? Would there still be disagreements on baptism or frequency of Communion or use of images in the church or various liturgies? Most likely. But what if we could just say and agree that by Christ’s death and resurrection we are redeemed to God’s Kingdom, however He has accomplished that? What if we could all agree that God has called us who believe Him to be agents of His “good works” while we’re here? If we got the core message right and agreed that it was the core message, wouldn’t the world see Christ through our witness and our lives differently, more positively? I believe so. If we all shared a core view of Christ as the culmination of God’s plan from the beginning to redeem His creation, a completed work that inaugurated the Kingdom of God here now, and that will ultimately be completed on the last day, in which His children of faith, through the indwelling of His Spirit lived out an obedience of faith (Rom 16:26), we could all then give each other a lot of space for particular liturgies or worship formats, or calendars, or whatever other ephemeral affectations unique to our particular group.
The NPP is making surprising inroads today amongst evangelicals. And, as a result, it is incurring increasingly intense criticism from traditionalists who see it as a threat. I can’t help but feel that there is something quite Pharisaical about such a reaction.
The NPP is NOT disputing that salvation is from God, and only God. It is not postulating that somehow God checks on the works of those He, by His sovereign grace, chooses to extend the call to repentance and salvation. In both schools of thought 1) God gives His grace; 2) the recipients of His grace show their gratitude through obedience to His law and leading (Paul’s “obedience of faith”); 3) these “fruits of the Spirit” serve as a testimony of the position of those who display them as one of God’s children – “in Christ” as Paul repeatedly put it.
Both camps affirm that Christ’s death and resurrection relieved those who believe Him from both the penalty and the curse of sin – that the individual believer now has “freedom in Christ”. But, most importantly, both agree that sinners do not gain access to God’s favor/justification by their own efforts, the foundation stone of Lutheranism.
So why, you might wonder, are advocates of the panorama of God’s saving plan for Creation that the NPP presents seen as threats to the traditionalists? Because that’s what human beings do when some of their long-held beliefs, and the language[ix] used to describe those beliefs, is called into question. It’s simply human nature’s defense mechanism.
Alas, people are going to read the key phrases of Paul’s epistles and their keywords (justification, righteousness, “imputation”, faith, etc.) through whatever lens of meaning they have been taught are their meanings. No amount of logic, historical analysis, or exegetical device is going to change minds from where they have been taught to be. There is simply too much self-assured righteousness on the part of the traditionalists to do anything other. Perhaps if you too reject these new meanings emphasized by the NPP, you would gain a bit of perspective by going back and re-reading Paul forcing yourself to read him using these NPP meanings to simply prove to yourself that they are entirely plausible and that Paul’s various messages retain at least as much continuity (I think more) using them than they do by using the old meanings.
Why is the reaction of traditionalists important one way or the other? Because they hold the keys to a new ecumenisms, one that would have the ability to join diverse groups of Christ-followers into the unity He Himself prayed for (John 17:21), and that would proclaim God’s intended gospel, rather than a self-focused subset. If all Christians understood they were called and equipped to serve their Lord as He leads them, that this was their earthly purpose, the denominational walls would be fatally weakened.
Does it make any difference to the sinner looking for salvation? Not really. He can find it in both versions of the gospel. But I maintain that it makes a huge difference to the God and Christ they profess.
You’re of course welcome to agree or disagree.
[i] Kent L. Yinger, The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011)
[ii] Comments by N.T. Wright at the Tenth Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, 2004.
“I refer to the question known as ordo salutis. I take this phrase to refer to the lining up in chronological sequence of the events which occur from the time when a human being is outside the community of God’s people, stuck in idolatry and consequent sin, through to the time when this same erstwhile sinner is fully and finally saved. This question has been closely bound up with that of justification, but I shall suggest in this and the next section that when Paul uses the word and its cognates he has in mind one step only within that sequence, and – critically, as you will see – not the one that the word has been used to denote in much Christian dogmatics. At this point I am implicitly in dialogue with a general trend, at least since the sixteenth century, to make ‘conversion’ and ‘justification’ more or less coterminous; a trend which has been sped on its way when ‘conversion’ is understood as ‘the establishment of a personal relationship with God’, and justification has been understood in a ‘relational’ sense with the meaning, not of membership in the covenant as in the Old Testament, but of this personal relationship between the believer and God.
I have already described how Paul understands the moment when the gospel of Jesus as Lord is announced and people come to believe it and obey its summons. Paul has a regular technical term for this moment, and that technical term is neither ‘justification’ nor ‘conversion’ (though he can use the latter from time to time): the word in question is ‘call’. ‘Consider your call’, he says to the Corinthians; ‘God called me by his grace’, he says of himself. (This is why, incidentally, Krister Stendahl’s suggestion that we should think of Paul’s ‘call’ as opposed to his ‘conversion’ misses the point. For Paul, the word ‘call’ denoted not merely a vocation to a particular task but also, more fundamentally, the effective call of the gospel, applied by the Spirit to the individual heart and life and resulting in a turning away from idolatry and sin and a lifelong turning to God in Christ in believing allegiance.)
But if the ‘call’ is the central event, the point at which the sinner turns to God, what comes before and after? Paul himself has given the answer in Romans 8.29–30. Though he does not often discuss such things, he here posits two steps prior to God’s ‘call’ through the gospel: God’s foreknowledge, and God’s marking-out-ahead-of-time, the mark in question being the mark of the image of the Son. (I translate with a paraphrase because of the problems associated with the word ‘destiny’ within the word ‘predestination’.) These serve to emphasize, of course, the sovereignty of God in the call itself, while Paul never engages with the questions we want to ask about how precisely these things work out. (The closest he comes is of course Romans 9, which simply restates the problem for us; the parallel statement in Ephesians 1.3–14 is a celebration rather than an explanation.)
But what matters for our purposes even more is the question of what comes after the ‘call’. ‘Those he called, he also justified’. In other words, Paul uses ‘justify’ to denote something other than, and logically subsequent to, what we have often thought of as the moment of conversion, when someone who hasn’t before believed the gospel is gripped by the word and the Spirit and comes to believe it, to submit to Jesus as the risen Lord. Here is the central point in the controversy between what I say about Paul and what the tradition, not least the protestant tradition, has said. The tradition has used ‘justify’ and its cognates to denote conversion, or at least the initial moment of the Christian life, and has then debated broader and narrower definitions of what counts. My reading of Paul indicates that he does not use the word like that; and my method, shared with the reformers, insists that I prefer scripture itself to even the finest traditions of interpretation. The fact that the Christian tradition has since at least Augustine used the word ‘justify’ to mean ‘become a Christian’, whether broadly or narrowly conceived, is neither here nor there. For Paul, ‘justification’ is something that follows on from the ‘call’ through which a sinner is summoned to turn from idols and serve the living God, to turn from sin and follow Christ, to turn from death and believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. This points on to my fifth and final point, to which we shall come shortly.
But before that, we note that the final verb in Paul’s sequence is not ‘sanctified’. He would say that this has already happened to all baptised believers (see 1 Corinthians 6.10f.). It is ‘glorified’. Paul regards it as a fixed point that those who belong to the Messiah by faith and baptism already share his glorious life, his rule over the world, and that this rule, this glory, will one day be manifest. There is no time to develop this here, but I note, as a point which much dogmatics has yet to come to terms with, the fact that both Paul and John the Seer place great emphasis not just on being saved, not just on being raised from the dead, but on sharing the glorious rule of Jesus Christ as Lord over God’s new world. What this role will consist of, who or what will be in subjection under this rule, and so on, are questions which have fallen off most people’s radar screens. I suggest it’s time we got them back on.
I hope I have said enough in this short section to convince you of two things. First, my understanding of how Paul supposed someone became a Christian is, I think, basically orthodox and indeed reformed. God takes the initiative, based on his foreknowledge; the preached word, through which the Spirit is at work, is the effective agent; belief in the gospel, that is, believing submission to Jesus as the risen Lord, is the direct result. My central point is that this isn’t what Paul is referring to when he speaks of ‘justification’. But the substance of what reformed theology, unlike Paul, has referred to by means of that word remains. Faith is not something someone does as a result of which God decides to grant them a new status or privilege. Becoming a Christian, in its initial moment, is not based on anything that a person has acquired by birth or achieved by merit. Faith is itself the first fruit of the Spirit’s call. And those thus called, to return to Philippians 1.6, can be sure that the one who began a good work in them will complete it at the day of Christ.”
[iii] James Dunn, “The Justice of God: A Renewed Perspective on Justification by Faith,” in The New Perspective on Paul, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 193-212, here 194.
[iv] “As for me, if I stumble, the mercies of God shall be my eternal salvation. If I stagger because of the sin of my flesh, my justification shall be by the righteousness of God which endures forever” (1QS 11.11).29 “I lean on thy grace and on the multitude of thy mercies, for thou wilt pardon iniquity” (1QH).30 Or consider this synagogue prayer which has been dated between AD 10 – 40: “Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who multiplies forgiveness.”
[v] Yinger, The New Perspective, 22
[vi] James D.G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Gospels (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), pp 99-101
[vii] Luther describes his coming to this view:
“Meanwhile, I had already during that year  returned to interpret the Psalter anew. I had confidence in the fact that I was more skillful, after I had lectured in the university on St. Paul’s epistles to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the one to the Hebrews. I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was not the cold blood about the heart, but a single word in Chapter 1[:17], “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner….
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.”
Luther interpreted two “righteousnesses” — passive, which was granted him by his faith, and active, which enabled him thereafter to good works. Whether Luther saw God’s righteousness as his own possession through faith is not entirely clear. In his biography “Martin Luther, the man and his work” he is quoted thus:
For I am a sinner, but I am borne
in his righteousness given to me; I am impure, but his
holiness is my sanctification wherein I sweetly ride ; I am
foolish, but his wisdom carries me; worthy of damnation
I am, but his liberty is my redemption, a wagon most
[viii] 1) Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon, Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, et. al, 2) A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, Walter Bauer and Frederick William Danker
[ix] I have literally read countless criticisms of the NPP in otherwise scholarly papers complain that the NPP author being criticized didn’t “use the proper language” in reciting a doctrine.