The Paul Page: New and Improved


Designing and maintaining The Paul Page has been an incredible experience. Ten years ago, I designed a personal web page “dedicated to the new perspective on Paul,” threw up a few articles, and began inserting links to on-line articles on the new perspective. It never occurred to me then that it would eventually become the single most comprehensive on-line resource on the topic.

A lot has changed in those ten years. Neither Pauline scholarship nor technology has stood still. Until last month, I was still trying to keep up with the explosion of on-line material and wrestling with the increasingly difficult task of maintaining web pages with Microsoft Word and uploading them via dial-up (which I’m still on). That arrangement couldn’t have lasted much longer. I’ve known for years (and several of you have said as much) that The Paul Page has been long overdue for a makeover.

That time has finally come!

The Paul Page has now entered into an institutional partnership that will involve a team of editors — no longer will it be simply a personal web site maintained by a single person. I’ve now partnered with the NT Gateway and Logos Bible Software to give The Paul Page a fresh look and content management system to make it easier to keep up-to-date. More importantly, the revised format will better facilitate the broadening of content beyond “the new perspective” which, admittedly, isn’t quite as “new” as it once was.

Despite the makeover and changes, of course, some things will not change — like the importance of your participation and contributions. As always, links, suggestions, and submissions to the ongoing dialogue are most welcome. Thank you for helping The Paul Page to grow and mature over these last ten years, and for helping to take it to the next level in the service of accessible biblical theology for all.

Mark M. Mattison

A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul

by Mark M. Mattison

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Depending upon one’s point of view, the current state of Pauline studies is either exciting or alarming. Traditional interpretations of Paul’s letters are being examined afresh with increasing frequency as scholars diligently work to reconstruct Paul’s historical context. The fact that these studies may not corroborate traditional Reformed interpretations can be used to discount the growing consensus or to reconsider contemporary approaches to soteriology.

Of what might such a reconsideration consist? One of the primary features of the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification is an emphasis on the plight of the individual before God, an individual quest for piety apart from concrete social structures. As John Howard Yoder put it in his classic, The Politics of Jesus:

In line with the personal appeal which has been so central in Protestant faith since Luther, even more since Pietism, and especially since the merging of Protestant existentialism with modern secular personalism — and even more especially since Freud and Jung imposed upon everyone in our culture the vision of man as a self-centered reacting organism — it has seemed quite evident that the primary message of Jesus was a call most properly perceived by an individual, asking the hearer for something that can be done most genuinely by an individual standing alone. Whether this something that he can do standing alone be a rare heroic ethical performance like loving one’s enemies, or a response more accessible to the common man, like sorrow for his sins, it is a response each individual can make only for himself. It has nothing to do with the structures of society.1

Consequently, a historical reappraisal of Paul’s doctrine of justification could help not only to provide a more solid basis for bringing faith to bear on social issues, but also to strengthen the continued development of ecumenical dialogue.

The key questions involve Paul’s view(s) of the law and the meaning of the controversy in which Paul was engaged. Paul strongly argued that we are “justified by faith in Christ (or “the faith of Christ”) and not by doing the works of the law” (Gal. 2:16b). Since the time of Martin Luther, this has been understood as an indictment of legalistic efforts to merit favor before God. In fact Judaism in general has come to be construed as the very antithesis of Christianity. Judaism is earthly, carnal, proud; Christianity is heavenly, spiritual, humble. It is a tragic irony that all of Judaism has come to be viewed in terms of the worst vices of the sixteenth-century institutionalized church.

When Judaism is thus cast in the role of the medieval church, Paul’s protests become veryLutheran and traditional Protestant theology is reinforced in all its particulars, along with its limitations. In hermeneutical terms, then, the historical context of Paul’s debate lies at the very heart of the doctrine of justification in the church.

Obviously an in-depth analysis of the Pauline corpus and its place in the context of first-century Judaism would take us far beyond the scope of this brief article. We can, however, quickly survey the topography of Paul’s thought in context, particularly as it has emerged through the efforts of recent scholarship, and note some salient points which may be used as the basis of a refurbished soteriology.

Judaism as Legalistic: The Making and Breaking of a Paradigm

Traditional Protestant soteriology, focused as it is on the plight of the conscience-smitten individual before a holy God, must be carved out of the rock of human pretentiousness in order to be cogent. Thus it is no accident that the Reformers interpreted the burning issues of Paul’s day in light of their struggle against legalism. “The Reformers’ interpretation of Paul,” writes Krister Stendahl, “rests onan analogism when Pauline statements about Faith and Works, Law and Gospel, Jews and Gentiles are read in the framework of late medieval piety. The Law, the Torah, with its specific requirements of circumcision and food restrictions becomes a general principle of ‘legalism’ in religious matters.”2

This caricature of Judaism was buttressed by such scholars as Ferdinand Weber, who arranged a systematic presentation of rabbinic literature.3 Weber’s book provided a wealth of Jewish source material neatly arranged to show Judaism as a religion of legalism. Emil Schürer, Wilhelm Bousset, and others were deeply influenced by Weber’s work.4 These scholars in turn have been immensely influential. Rudolf Bultmann, for instance, relied on Schürer and Bousset for his understanding of first-century Judaism.5

Weber’s interpretation of Judaism did not go unchallenged, however. The Jewish theologian Claude G. Montefiore6 pointed out that Weber had not approached rabbinic literature with sufficient sensitivity to its nature and diversity. Weber had imposed a systematic grid on the rabbinic literature and wrested passages out of context. The law in Judaism was not a burden which produced self-righteousness. On the contrary, the law was itself a gift from a merciful and forgiving God.

A second challenge came from a non-Jewish scholar, George Foot Moore.7 Moore’s treatment of Weber was even more devastating than Montefiore’s. Moore clearly demonstrated that Weber had little firsthand knowledge of rabbinic literature and in fact took most of his quotations from earlier Christian works against Judaism. He demonstrated Schürer’s and Bousset’s reliance on Weber and, like Montefiore, pointed out that rabbinic Judaism was not a religion of legalism.

This point was not sufficiently driven home, however, until the publication in 1977 of E. P. Sanders’ book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. A New Testament scholar with a good grasp of rabbinic literature, Sanders drove the final and most powerful nail into the coffin of the traditional Christian caricature of Judaism. Sanders’ extensive treatment of the Tannaitic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha was designed, like the efforts of Montefiore and Moore, to describe and define Palestinian Judaism on its own terms, not as the mirror reflection of Christianity. Unlike Montefiore and Moore, Sanders has been immensely successful in convincing New Testament scholars. Sanders has coined a now well-known phrase to describe the character of first-century Palestinian Judaism: “covenantal nomism.” The meaning of “covenantal nomism” is that human obedience is not construed as the means of entering into God’s covenant. That cannot be earned; inclusion within the covenant body is by the grace of God. Rather, obedience is the means of maintaining one’s status within the covenant. And with its emphasis on divine grace and forgiveness, Judaism was never a religion of legalism.

Krister Stendahl: Paul’s “Robust Conscience”

The more we consider Paul’s writing in this context the less we see the acute psychological dilemma characteristic of the Augustinian-Lutheran interpretation as a whole. Krister Stendahl masterfully explores this in his ground-breaking essay “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” Paul was certainly aware of his own shortcomings, but, Stendahl asks, “does he ever intimate that he is aware of any sins of his own which would trouble his conscience? It is actually easier to find statements to the contrary. The tone in Acts 23:1, ‘Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day’ (cf. 24:16), prevails also throughout his letters.”8Far from being “simultaneously a sinner and a saint” (simul iustus et peccator), Paul testifies of his clear conscience: “Indeed, this is our boast, the testimony of our conscience: we have behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity” (2 Cor. 1:12a). He was aware that he had not yet “arrived” (Phil. 3:12-14), that he still struggled with the flesh, yet he was confident of the value of his performance (1 Cor. 9:27). He looked forward to a day when “all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10), and he anticipated a favorable verdict (v. 11). He acknowledged that his clear conscience did not necessarily ensure this verdict (1 Cor. 4:4), but he was confident nevertheless. These are hardly the convictions of someone who intends to rest entirely on the merits of an alien righteousness imputed to his or her account.

It may be countered that Paul considered himself the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9a; cp. Eph. 3:8) and in fact chief of sinners (cp. 1 Tim. 1:15). But this is not the paradigmatic expression of humility and contrition, as if every Christian should regard herself more sinful than the next. Paul’s chief sin was that he had violently persecuted the church (1 Cor. 15:9b; cp. 1 Tim. 1:13-16). This confession is obviously concrete and historical — not subjective, existential, and universally comparable to every person’s experience. At any rate Paul had put all of that behind him and made up for his sordid past (1 Cor. 15:10); he did not languish in guilt. From what we know of his extant writings, he did not seem to experience the unrelenting introspection which became so characteristic of Western humankind after Augustine. Nor, many historians agree, could he have in his time and culture.9

All of this would seem to be at loggerheads with Romans 7, where Paul writes that “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (v. 19). Is this not the despairing cry (whether pre-conversion or post-conversion) of a person smitten by a remoresful conscience? Stendahl reminds us that this passage is part of a larger argument about the law. In defending the holiness of the law Paul assigns guilt to Sin and the Flesh. But Paul does not simply identify the egō with Sin and Flesh. Verse 19 does not lead directly into verse 24 as a cry of despair, but into verse 20 which on the contrary exonerates the egō and blames the principle of Sin. Paul’s simple observation that a person often does what he or she knows is wrong serves to preserve the holiness and goodness of the Law. Stendahl writes:

Paul happened to express this supporting argument so well that what to him and his contemporaries was a common sense observation appeared to later interpreters to be a most penetrating insight into the nature of sin. This could happen easily once the problem about the nature and intention of God’s Law was not any more as relevant a problem in the sense in which Paul grappled with it. The question about the Law became the incidental framework around the golden truth of Pauline anthropology. This is what happens when one approaches Paul with the Western question of an introspective conscience. This Western interpretation reaches its climax when it appears that even, or especially, the will of man is the center of depravation. And yet, in Rom. 7 Paul had said about that will: “The will (to do the good) is there…” (v. 18).10

The growing consensus about the nature of first-century Palestinian Judaism and the agreement that Judaism was never a religion of “legalism” has generally been followed by the observation that whatever else Paul was protesting, he was not protesting self-righteous11 efforts to merit favor before God. Nor was Paul grappling with the Western question of the introspective conscience.

The tide of opinion has clearly turned against the Lutheran-Weberian interpretation of the role and function of the law within Judaism. Protestants can no longer assume that Paul was up against a legalistic Judaism which taught that salvation was to be “merited” or “earned” by self-reliance. Nor were Paul’s opponents against faith, grace, and forgiveness. The sticking-point of the Judaizing controversy must be located elsewhere.

If Paul was not protesting against legalism in Galatians and Romans, what is it he was up against? If Jews and Judaizing Christians also believed in faith and grace, to what did Paul object? These questions have proven more difficult for scholars. Montefiore suggested that Paul was contending not with the Palestinian Judaism which would evolve into rabbinic Judaism but with a colder, more pessimistic Hellenized Judaism of the diaspora in which God was more remote and less forgiving.12However, subsequent scholarship has not vindicated this thesis. Most scholars today agree that though there were differences between Hellenistic Judaism and Palestinian Judaism, the differences were not as great as Montefiore’s suggestion would demand.


E.P. Sanders: “Transfer Terminology”

Other solutions are even less convincing. For some, like Heikki Räisänen,13 Paul’s criticisms of the law are not only inaccurate but contradictory as well. They are to be understood not as representing a carefully formulated doctrine but as expedient arguments derived from his conviction that Christ is Savior of the world. Similarly, E. P. Sanders concluded that Paul worked backward from solution to plight rather than from plight to solution. If salvation comes to all, both Jews and Gentiles, through Christ, then it cannot come through the law.

This approach certainly places more emphasis on the nature of the Judaizing conflict as a Jew/Gentile issue rather than a philosophical debate about human nature and divine sovereignty. Sanders writes, for instance:

The dispute in Galatians is not about “doing” as such. Neither of the opposing factions saw the requirement of “doing” to be a denial of faith. When Paul makes requirements of his converts, he does not think that he has denied faith, and there is no reason to think that Jewish Christians who specified different requirements denied faith. The supposed conflict between “doing” as such and “faith” as such is simply not present in Galatians. What was at stake was not a way of life summarized by the word “trust” versus a mode of life summarized by “requirements,” but whether or not the requirement for membership in the Israel of God would result in there being “neither Jew nor Greek.” …There was no dispute over the necessity to trust God and have faith in Christ. The dispute was about whether or not one had to be Jewish.14

For Sanders the language of justification is “transfer terminology.” To be justified is to enter into the covenant people. The distinction between “getting in” and “staying in” is important in this regard. The debate between “faith” and “law,” he writes, is a debate about entry requirements, not about life subsequent to conversion. The law is excluded as an entry requirement into the body of those who will be saved; entrance must be by faith apart from the law. Once Gentiles are “in,” however, they must behave appropriately and fulfill the law in order to retain their status. Elements of the law which create social distinctions between Jews and Gentiles — circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, food laws — also have to be discarded, even though Paul never sought a rational explanation for such a selective use of the law.

Thus in Sanders’ view Paul’s letters do not provide a consistent view of the law. Paul’s central conviction — the universal aspects of christology and soteriology, and Christian behavior — led Paul to give different answers about the law, depending on the question. “When the topic changes, what he says about the law also changes.”15 When the topic is entrance requirements, the law is excluded. When the topic is behavior, the law is to be fulfilled. The arguments to which Paul is driven to defend these answers are construed as less consistent yet.

James D.G. Dunn: “The Works of the Law”

At this point the corrective work of James D. G. Dunn becomes critical to fully appreciating Sanders’ reconstruction of Palestinian Judaism and making good sense of Paul at the same time.16 It was in fact Dunn who coined the term “the new perspective on Paul” in his landmark 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture.17

Dunn demonstrates that the language of justification is not just “transfer terminology.” There are ongoing and future elements of justification as well as the initial act of acceptance. “‘To be justified’ in Paul cannot, therefore, be treated simply as an entry or initiation formula; nor is it possible to draw a clear line of distinction between Paul’s usage and the typically Jewish covenant usage. Already, as we may observe, Paul appears a good deal less idiosyncratic and arbitrary than Sanders alleges.”18

Also unlike Sanders, Dunn provides a coherent framework for both Paul’s positive statements about the law and his negative statements. It was not the law itself which Paul criticized, but rather its misuse as a social barrier. This misuse of the law is what Paul means by the term “the works of the law”:

‘Works of law’, ‘works of the law’ are nowhere understood here, either by his Jewish interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works which earn God’s favor, as merit-amassing observances. They are rather seen as badges: they are simply what membership of the covenant people involves, what mark out the Jews as God’s people;…in other words, Paul has in view precisely what Sanders calls ‘covenantal nomism.’ And what he denies is that God’s justification depends on ‘covenantal nomism,’ that God’s grace extends only to those who wear the badge of the covenant.19

The “badges” or “works” particularly at issue were those of circumcision and food laws, not simply human efforts to do good. The ramifications of this observation for traditional Protestantism are far-reaching:

More important for Reformation exegesis is the corollary that ‘works of the law’ do not mean ‘good works’ in general, ‘good works’ in the sense disparaged by the heirs of Luther, works in the sense of achievement….In short, once again Paul seems much less a man of sixteenth-century Europe and much more firmly in touch with the reality of first-century Judaism than many have thought.20

Dunn also emphasizes the ramifications for the traditional dichotomy between faith and works:

We should not let our grasp of Paul’s reasoning slip back into the old distinction between faith and works in general, between faith and ‘good works’. Paul is not arguing here for a concept of faith which is totally passive because it fears to become a ‘work’. It is the demand for a particular work as the necessary expression of faith which he denies.21


N.T. Wright: “The Righteousness of God”

More recently, N.T. Wright has made a significant contribution in his little book, What Saint PaulReally Said.22 Wright’s focus is the gospel and the doctrine of justification. With incisive clarity he demonstrates that the core of Paul’s gospel was not justification by faith, but the death and resurrection of Christ and his exaltation as Lord.23 The proclamation of the gospel was the proclamation of Jesus as Lord, the Messiah who fulfilled Israel’s expectations. Romans 1:3,4, not 1:16,17, is the core of Paul’s message to the Romans, contrary to traditional thinking.24Justification is not the center of Paul’s thought, but an outworking of it:

[T]he doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ….Let us be quite clear. ‘The gospel’ is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. ‘Justification’ is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other.25

Wright brings us to this point by showing what “justification” would have meant in Paul’s Jewish context, bound up as it was in law-court terminology, eschatology, and God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant.

Specifically, Wright explodes the myth that the pre-Christian Saul was a pious, proto-Pelagian moralist seeking to earn his individual passage into heaven. Wright capitalizes on Paul’s autobiographical confessions to paint rather a picture of a zealous Jewish nationalist whose driving concern was to cleanse Israel of Gentiles as well as Jews who had lax attitudes toward the Torah. Running the risk of anachronism, Wright points to a contemporary version of the pre-Christian Saul: Yigal Amir, the zealous Torah-loyal Jew who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for exchanging Israel’s land for peace. Wright writes:

Jews like Saul of Tarsus were not interested in an abstract, ahistorical system of salvation. They were not even primarily interested in, as we say, ‘going to heaven when they died’. (They believed in the resurrection, in which God would raise them all to share in the life of the promised renewed Israel and renewed world; but that is very different from the normal Western vision of ‘heaven’.) They were interested in the salvation which, they believed, the one true God had promised to his people Israel.26

When Saul became a Christian, Wright contends, he maintained the Jewish shape of his doctrine, but filled it with new content. The zeal of Saul the Pharisee was now the zeal of Paul the Apostle; God’s covenant faithfulness (righteousness) with regard to the covenant people was indeed fulfilled, in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Wright maintains that as a Christian, Paul continued to challenge paganism by taking the moral high ground of the creational monotheist. The doctrine of justification was not what Paul preached to the Gentiles as the main thrust of his gospel message; it was rather “the thing his converts most needed to know in order to be assured that they really were part of God’s people”27 after they had responded to the gospel message.

Even while taking the gospel to the Gentiles, however, Paul continued to criticize Judaism “from within” even as he had as a zealous Pharisee. But whereas his mission before was to root out those with lax attitudes toward the Torah, now his mission was to demonstrate that God’s covenant faithfulness (righteousness) has already been revealed in Jesus Christ.

At this point Wright carefully documents Paul’s use of the controversial phrase “God’s righteousness” and draws out the implications of his meaning against the background of a Jewish concept of justification. The righteousness of God and the righteousness of the party who is “justified” cannot be confused because the term bears different connotations for the judge than for the plaintiff or defendant. The judge is “righteous” if his or her judgment is fair and impartial; the plaintiff or defendant is “righteous” if the judge rules in his or her favor. Hence:

If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. For the judge to be righteous does not mean that the court has found in his favor. For the plaintiff or defendant to be righteous does not mean that he or she has tried the case properly or impartially. To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake. That is not how the language works.28

However, Wright makes the important observation that even with the forensic metaphor, Paul’s theology is not so much about the courtroom as it is about God’s love.29

Wright then goes on to flesh out the doctrine of justification in Galatians, Philippians, and Romans. The “works of the law” are not proto-Pelagian efforts to earn salvation, but rather “sabbath [keeping], food-laws, circumcision.”30 Considering the controversy in Galatia, Wright writes:

Despite a long tradition to the contrary, the problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God….The problem he addresses is: should his ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? Now this question is by no means obviously to do with the questions faced by Augustine and Pelagius, or by Luther and Erasmus. On anyone’s reading, but especially within its first-century context, it has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God: are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way? Circumcision is not a ‘moral’ issue; it does not have to do with moral effort, or earning salvation by good deeds. Nor can we simply treat it as a religious ritual, then designate all religious ritual as crypto-Pelagian good works, and so smuggle Pelagius into Galatia as the arch-opponent after all. First-century thought, both Jewish and Christian, simply doesn’t work like that….

[T]he polemic against the Torah in Galatians simply will not work if we ‘translate’ it into polemic either against straightforward self-help moralism or against the more subtle snare of ‘legalism’, as some have suggested. The passages about the law only work — and by ‘work’ I mean they will only make full sense in their contexts, which is what counts in the last analysis — when we take them as references to the Jewish law, the Torah, seen as the national charter of the Jewish race.31

The debate about justification, then, “wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.”32

Translating the doctrine of justification into contemporary terms, Wright notes with irony that this doctrine, which was principally concerned with unity and acceptance in the body of Christ regardless of social barriers, has been one of the most divisive doctrines in the history of Christianity, particularly between Catholics and Protestants who have traditionally interpreted it as a question of precisely how salvation is to be attained.33

He also draws out the social implications of a gospel in which Jesus is proclaimed as Lord over all things (including “politics”34) and which will not allow for a rugged individualism. “The gospel creates, not a bunch of individual Christians, but a community. If you take the old route of putting justification, in its traditional meaning, at the centre of your theology, you will always be in danger of sustaining some sort of individualism.”35 Hence Wright dismantles the artificial distinctions between spiritual piety and social concern.


Given the increasingly fragmenting state of biblical studies today it should come as no surprise that some Pauline scholars are not interested in synthesizing their findings with contemporary theology.Stowers writes, for instance: “If I challenge the historical accuracy of some standard interpretations of the letter [Romans], it does not mean that I intend to denigrate the contributions of its great commentators. But my purposes as a historian of early Christian literature differ from the purposes of the theologians and churchmen.”36 But those of us who want our theology to be at the same time cogent and biblical cannot settle for this approach. Instead we must ask how Paul’s original meaning, in its historical context, can be appropriated by contemporary theology. In so doing we affirm that New Testament theology is very much alive and a tenable undertaking in the twenty-first century; that the canon of Scripture has continuing relevance as an authoritative guide in matters of Christian faith.

The Judaizing conflict and Paul’s doctrine of justification which grew out of it continues to be relevant to our day. But we must recognize the relevance in analogy. Applying Paul’s polemic against Judaizing to any and all “good works” is not a correct appropriation of Paul’s teaching. True as it is that no one can “earn” salvation before God, that was not Paul’s point, and applying his language that way often involves unintended consequences.37

It is a hermeneutical truism that a New Testament text must be understood and appreciated in its context before it can be applied to that of the interpreter. Romans has been preserved for the benefit of the church, but it was written to first-century Christians living in Rome. The unity of the church at that time was threatened by ethnic and social conflict. The issues then at hand — circumcision, holy days, meat sacrificed to pagan idols — are no longer issues in the church. It must be asked, then, whether comparable issues currently exist. Our answer must be in the affirmative. We no longer fight over circumcision but we do fight over worship styles and a host of other issues. Even today Christianity is confused with culture and many are unable to distinguish between the substantial and the supplemental. Paul speaks to all of this by affirming that all cultural and ethnic groups stand before God on an equal footing and that we are not justified on the basis of peripheral issues. In this light, the Pauline doctrine of justification has less to do with the individual quest for righteousness and more to do with the sociological makeup of the community of faith.

Having said that, it is important to emphasize what such a contemporary doctrine should not entail. First, such a doctrine should not be construed as one of legalism, burdening Christians with lists of arbitrary requirements and detailed standards of conduct and enforcing compliance with the threat of hell. It is in this way that the message of the Reformation may be fully appreciated in the church today. For all of his exegetical oversights and doctrinal overreaction, Martin Luther’s protests against penance, indulgences, and other abuses were entirely justified. Good Christians with troubled consciences may seek reassurance in Luther’s message of the acceptance of individuals before God apart from the extra-biblical demands of ecclesiastical hierarchies.38 In short, a socially responsible doctrine of justification must not be characterized by the concept of “earning” God’s favor. Just because Paul was not up against that idea does not mean that it is acceptable.39

Second, we cannot reconsider the Christian doctrine of justification without grappling with the meaning of “righteousness.” We have already argued that righteousness is not simply the imputed merit of another. But our criticism of traditional approaches must go beyond that. Dunn argues against the Greek view that righteousness is an impersonal, abstract standard, a measuring-stick or a balancing scale. Righteousness in Scriptural terms, he argues, grows out of covenant relationship.40 We forgive because we have been forgiven (Matt. 18:21-35); “we love because” God “first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

That is the meaning of a socially responsible and ecumenical doctrine of justification by faith.


1 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1972, pp. 135,136.

2 “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” in The Writings of St. Paul, ed. Wayne A. Meeks (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.), 1972, p. 426.

3 Cf. Frank Thielman, Paul & The Law (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 1994, p. 25; E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 1977, p. 33.

4 Thielman, Paul, p. 26; Sanders, Judaism, p. 33.

5 Thielman, Paul, p. 26; Sanders, Judaism, pp. 39,42-47.

6 Thielman, Paul, p. 27.

7 Thielman, Paul, p. 28; Sanders, Judaism, pp. 33,34.

8 Stendahl, “Paul,” p. 429.

9 Cf. Stanley Stowers, A Rereading of Romans (New Haven & London: Yale University Press), 1994, p. 6: “The more one learns and understands about the world of the Roman empire and the Jews in the Greek East, the more difficult it becomes to imagine the Paul known from modern scholarship in that world. The Paul of traditional theological scholarship seems to have dropped directly out of heaven.”

10 Stendahl, “Paul,” p. 432. I would hasten to add that rather than start with the highly figurative Romans 7 I would prefer to take the clearer and less enigmatic Philippians 3 as my control text for interpreting Paul’s experience with the law and work into Romans 7 and other passages from there. When we take Philippians 3 as our starting point, a much different picture emerges.

11 The phrases “a righteousness of my own” (Phil. 3:9) and “their own righteousness” (Rom. 10:3) refer not to self-righteousness but the particular righteousness of Israel in contrast to the Gentile nations. Cf. James D.G. Dunn, Romans (Word Biblical Commentary 38; Dallas, TX: Word Publishing), 1988, 2.587,595; N.T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1997, p. 124.

12 Thielman, Paul, pp. 31-33.

13 Thielman, Paul, pp. 37-39.

14 Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 1983, p. 159. Similarly, George Howard writes about “the belief that Paul’s concern is with a dichotomy between works and faith. Works supposedly imply a system of merit in which a man is justified by keeping the law. Faith, on the other hand, supposedly excludes works by definition and belongs to a system of grace. Faith and works are considered to be opposite ways to righteousness and are in fact incompatible. As one has so clearly put it: ‘The whole matter is now on a different plane – believing instead of achieving’….But the coexistence of works of law and faith in Christ in Jewish Christianity suggests that the two are not absolutely incompatible from the standpoint of early Christianity. To argue that the law was done away because it demanded the impossible task of legal purity, and that to accept circumcision was to assume the obligation of this impossible task and to nullify the effects of faith in Christ is out of harmony with the facts. If Jewish Christianity practised the law while accepting faith in Christ Jesus as the way to salvation, how can it be said that the early church, including Paul, considered the two as mutually exclusive principles of life?” (Paul: Crisis in Galatia [Cambridge University Press], 1979, second edition 1990, pp. 51,52.)

15 Sanders, Paul, p. 143.

16 Cf. Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press), 1990; Romans; The Epistle to the Galatians (Black’s New Testament Commentary;Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 1993.

17 Reprinted as chapter 7 of Jesus, Paul, and the Law.

18 Jesus, p. 190.

19 Ibid., p. 194.

20 Ibid., pp. 194, 195.

21 Ibid., p. 198. Not surprisingly, Dunn has been criticized on this point, most notably by Stephen Westerholm (Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters [Grand Rapids,MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.], 1988) who focuses on Romans 4:1-5 with a view to preserving the traditional distinction between faith and “works” as human effort generally. Dunn’s response is that in Romans 4:1-5 Paul still has covenantal nomism in view (in keeping with the context) and that Paul’s play on words need not imply that his opponents believed in “payment-earning work” (Jesus,pp. 238,239; Romans 1.228,229). For another treatment of Romans 4 from the new perspective, seeAbraham in Romans 4: The Father of All Who Believe).

22 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1997.

23 Ibid., pp. 45,88,113,114,151.

24 Ibid., pp. 52-54,126.

25 Ibid., pp. 132,133.

26 Ibid., pp. 32,33.

27 Ibid., p. 94.

28 Ibid., p. 98.

29 Ibid., p. 110.

30 Ibid., p. 132.

31 Ibid., pp. 120-122.

32 Ibid., p. 119.

33 Ibid., pp. 158,159.

34 Ibid., pp. 153-157,164.

35 Ibid., pp. 157,158.

36 Romans, p. 4.

37 Cf. Wright’s statement that the “popular view of ‘justification by faith’, though not entirely misleading, does not do justice to the richness and precision of Paul’s doctrine, and indeed distorts it at various points….Briefly and baldly put, if you start with the popular view of justification, you may actually lose sight of the heart of the Pauline gospel [i.e., Jesus’ death and resurrection]; whereas if you start with the Pauline gospel itself you will get justification in all its glory thrown in as well”(Paul, p. 113).

38 Cf. James D.G. Dunn and Alan M. Suggate, The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1993, p. 8.

39 Cf. Wright, Paul, p. 116.

40 Cf. Dunn, Galatians, pp. 134-135; Dunn and Suggate, Justice, pp. 32ff.

Justification and the Righteousness of God in the Pauline Corpus

by Wan Chee Keong

Traditionally, dikaioumai, ‘to be justified’, has been understood in general as ‘to be put in right relation with God’. Arndt-Gingrich defines it: ‘to be acquitted, be pronounced and treated as righteous, and thereby become dikaios (righteous), receive the divine gift of dikaisunh(righteousness)’ (Cole, p. 80). It has to do with the individual sinner’s status before the holy God.

Dunn’s interpretation, however, is that ‘justification’ in Gal. 2.16 is ‘something Jewish’ and has to do with the covenant, to do with God’s chosen people. It is ‘God’s acknowledgement that someone is in the covenant’ (p.190), in particular, the acknowledgement that Gentile Christians, as Gentiles, are full members of the Elect (Gal. 3.28). Integral to the ‘people of the covenant’ is the fact of the corporate whole, the community. This interpretation comes from his understanding that ‘works of the law’ in Paul refers particularly, but not exclusively, to clean/unclean food regulations, circumcision and sabbath observance of the Law.

This essay is an attempt to examine whether Dunn’s radical interpretation holds in the extant letters of Paul. The obvious place to begin is of course Galatians, very likely Paul’s earliest letter where the word ‘justification’ is used.

In this letter Dunn’s thesis seems to be confirmed by five pieces of evidence. First is Paul’s lengthy exposition of the Abrahamic covenant in 3.6 through 4.7. Justification has to do with who are the ‘children (plural) of Abraham’ (3.7). Those who belong to Christ are ‘Abraham’s seed’ (collective singular; 3.29). Justification is to ‘receive the adoption of sons’ (plural; 4.5; cf. Rom. 9.4); to be ‘a son’ (collective singular) and therefore ‘an heir’ (collective singular; 4.7). In all these verses it is the corporate dimension (viz. the people of the covenant) that is dominant, not the individual.

Secondly, 3.26-28 is highly significant. 3.26 may be translated as ‘faith-children of God in the corporate whole that is the Body of Christ’ (Cole, p. 109). Also in 3.29a the literal ‘if ye be Christ’s’ may be paraphrased as ‘if you are part of Christ’s body’ (Cole, p. 111). Again the corporate dimension is implied.

Thirdly, 4.17, ‘They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them.’ We need to ask: from what exactly did the Judaisers try to exclude the Galatians? The answer, in light of the context, seems to be from the company of the Elect, from membership of God’s covenant people.

Fourthly, we have Paul’s exposition of the two covenants in 4.21-5.1. Christians, both Jew and Gentile, are children of the ‘Jerusalem which is above’ which is ‘free’ (4.26); children of ‘(the covenant of) promise’ (4.28); children of the ‘free (woman)’ (4.31). They are, as it were, children of the covenant of freedom, though Paul does not use the term.

Finally there is the existence of the ‘Israel of God’ (6.16). ‘Israel is the covenant name of the elect race’ (Martin, p. 142). Inasmuch as there is an ‘Israel after the flesh’. So there is an ‘Israel of God’ that is the true Israel, God’s truly chosen people, comprising both believing Jews and Gentiles.

Acknowledgment of membership in the covenant is, however, not all there is to Justification. It is admittedly the primary aspect in Galatians. The traditional understanding of Justification as sins forgiven, acquittal and a right status, although secondary in this epistle, is nonetheless an important and integral aspect (see esp. 3.5,8,11). Even Dunn talks of ‘God’s verdict of acquittal’ (p. 194). Luther was not wrong after all. The truth of this matter of Justification is not a question of either/or but of both/and and what is primary and what is secondary in the particular epistle considered.

Two other secondary aspects seem to be intrinsic to Justification: live unto God (2.19) and life (3.21). In 2.19 Paul says ‘live into God’ is the result of being ‘dead to the law’. This death is through faith-union with Christ in his death (2.20). And the Christian’s righteousness is also through Christ’s death — in fact, the purpose of his death (2.21b). Therefore ‘live unto God’ is the result of, or is tantamount to, possessing ‘righteousness’. And in 3.21, ‘life’ and ‘righteousness’ are virtually synonymous. So ‘life’ may be the foremost meaning of ‘justified’ in 3.24. ‘Life’ to Paul is, of course, more than life as such (i.e. merely biological). In other words, to be justified, to be righteous in God’s sight, to have ‘righteousness’ is to live unto God, is to have the true life.

1 Cor. 1.30
‘But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:’
If we understand ‘righteousness’ as covenant membership it does not seem to fit in with the other terms, viz., wisdom, sanctification and redemption. It fits in well, however, if we understand it as a judicial right standing. So if we interpret the clause as ‘When we have Christ we have wisdom, right standing, holiness and release from bondage (i.e. freedom from the world and sin and evil)’, it makes good sense. Righteousness here therefore would mean primarily God’s declaration, through faith-union with Christ, that we are ‘in the right’ (legal status). It does not, however, exclude the nuances of declaration of covenant membership and election.

1 Cor. 6.11
‘And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God’.

In view of the context of judges, law courts and the catalogue of sins (vv. 9,10) ‘justified’ would be the traditional understanding as forgiveness of sins, acquittal and ‘a right standing’.

2 Cor. 3.9
‘For if the ministration of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory’.

‘Righteousness’ here is contrasted with ‘condemnation’; the primary meaning therefore would be acquittal/right status.

2 Cor. 5.21
‘For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him’.

As the contrast is with ‘sin’ the ‘righteousness of God’ here would primarily, if not solely, mean the declaration of sins forgiven, acquittal and a righteous status. Alternatives such as ‘God’s covenant faithfulness’ and ‘covenant membership’ just do not fit in the context of the verse. The phrase therefore refers to God’s attribute rather than his activity.

Astounding as it may seem, Paul says we are declared as righteous as God! If humankind before the Fall was made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1.26,27) then the ‘righteousness of God’ given to the believer is but part of God’s programme of restoring humankind to the original condition of ‘divinity’.

The penal, substitutionary and vicarious nature of Christ’s death is quite clear in this verse.

Phil. 3.9
The third chapter this epistle begins with Paul exhorting the Philippians to rejoice in the all-sufficiency of Christ and to be wary of the concision, ten katatomen (3.1-2). It reminds us of those who would constrain the Galatian believers to be circumcised. These troublers of the Galatians Paul wished that they be ‘cut off,’ apokopsontai (Gal. 5.12), with the nuances that they be castrated or mutilated or like leeches be removed. In contrast, Paul assures the Philippians that they are the true circumcision, he peritome (3.3). They are the true ‘covenant people of God inheriting the promises made to ancient Israel’ (Martin, p. 138).

Likewise the recurrence of ‘flesh’ in 3.3-4 reminds us of the theological importance of the word in the Galatian epistle (esp. Gal. 2.16,20; 3.3; 4.23,29; 6.12). In Paul’s listing of his seven credentials for confidence in the flesh (3.5,6), Martin notes that four are his ‘possessions by involuntary heredity’ and the other three ‘by personal choice and conviction’. The latter corresponds to the nuance of human effort of ‘flesh’ while the former to the nuance of human relationship/physical descent (i.e. Jewish distinctiveness and exclusivity; see Dunn, p. 199).

Apparently the advocates of circumcision on Gentile Christians were pretty much active.

If Galatians was written from Corinth during Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 18.1-18a) and after the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) c. 50 AD and Philippians during Paul’s imprisonment in Ephesus (Acts 19), c.57 AD, then the difference would be just six or seven years and the ‘concision’ party that Paul warns the Philippians about would be same people who ‘troubled’ the Galatians or of the same broad group. This may also explain why in both letters the emphasis is on ‘covenant membership’ in the doctrine of Justification.

In Phil. 3.9 Paul turns to ‘the future day of judgment’. What matters then is that he may be found ‘in him’, i.e., that he is united by faith to Christ. He contrasts ‘mine own righteousness, which is of the law’ with ‘that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith’. ‘Mine righteousness, which is of the Law’ seems to mean covenant righteousness, that righteousness which comes from covenantal faithfulness, from compliance with the statutes of the Law, both moral and ceremonial.

The righteousness of God defined here is, as it were, an ellipse, the foci of which is the faith of Christ and the faith of the believer.

How then are we to understand ‘the righteousness which is of God by faith’ in Phil. 3.9? We have noted the uncanny similarity of the context with that of Galatians, which epistle is primarily about covenant membership. Further we may note Paul’s strong emphasis that believers are ‘the circumcision’, God’s covenant people in verse 3. So very likely ‘righteousness’ here signifiesprimarily God’s declaration that Paul is a member of God’s elect, a member of God’s covenant people on Judgment Day, although this includes forgiveness of sins and the juridical declaration of ‘acquittal/being righteous’.

The qualifier ‘by faith’, epi te pistei, shows that this ‘righteous’ status is received through grateful belief. It is therefore a gift from God. Hence the rendering of modern translations of ek theou dikaiosunen as ‘righteousness from God’ is not far off the mark.

The KJV’s rendering, ‘of God’, however, has the advantage that this gift of righteousness originatesin the righteousness, that is, the covenant faithfulness, of God, and is at one with the righteous (ethical) nature of God himself.

Rom. 1.16,17
The gospel as set forth in these two verses is, as it were, two pieces of a three-piece Chinese treasure box. The outermost box is the gospel ‘concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 1.1,3). Inside this is the second: ‘the power of God unto salvation’ and the innermost box is ‘the righteousness of God’, that is, Justification. Contra N. T. Wright, therefore, the gospel is surely as much about Justification by faith as it is about his Son. In Romans, to say the least, Justification by faith is the heart of the gospel.

What does Paul mean by ‘the righteousness of God’? At face value it must mean the righteous (ethical) attribute of God. But how can this justify sinners? This puzzled and troubled the guilt-ridden Luther. ‘He could not understand why the apostle Paul talks of the “righteousness of God” as good news’ (Tomkins). He pondered day and night until he saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement “the just shall live by faith”. Then it dawned on him that it is ‘that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise’ (Shelley, p. 239).

If Luther had tried to understand the phrase as used in the Old Testament he would have arrived at the truth earlier. For in Isaiah (45.8-25; 55.6-13; 56.1; 61.10-11), Jeremiah (23.5-6; 33.15-16) and Daniel 9.16, ‘God’s righteousness is shown in making His people righteous…God must, by an inner necessity of His nature, do good to men: His “property is to have mercy and to forgive”’ (Dodd, p. 84). (Whist true, this has to be tempered by the absolute sovereignty of God, the seriousness and penalty of sin and his wrath toward sin.)

In Luther’s understanding, the core of the ‘righteousness of God’ is his grace and mercy toward the sinner. Justification would then mean primarily judicial declaration that the believer is ‘in the right’, is acquitted and has his sins forgiven. N. T. Wright contends, however, that the ‘righteousness of God’ in Romans refers to the ‘covenant-faithfulness of [Israel’s] God’ in which case Justification would mean primarily God’s declaration of ‘covenant membership’ of the believer. That is, it has ‘more to do with ecclesiology’. Contra Wright, however, if the ‘righteousness of God’ is the ‘power of God for salvation’ then the ‘righteousness of God’ has to do with soteriology and not ecclesiology. NEB also understands it as judicial/ethical, ‘God’s way of righting wrong’.

The emphasis in these two verses is on ‘faith’. Anticipating somewhat the interpretation in 3.21-23, ‘faith’ refers to both the faith of Christ and the faith of the believer. Surprisingly, the NEB margin is spot-on with its rendering of ‘from faith to faith’ as ‘It is based on faith (i.e. Christ’s faith) and addressed to faith (i.e. the believer’s faith)’ (NEB margin, parentheses mine).

Rom. 2.13

‘Justified’ here is in opposition to ‘have sinned’ and ‘be judged’ (v. 12), and in a context of ‘law’, ‘accusing or else excusing’ and the Day of Judgment (v. 14-16). It must therefore mean ‘to be judicially acquitted’, ‘in the right’.

Rom. 3.19-20
Paul’s teaching on the righteousness of God, justification and the Cross in Romans 3.19-26 is generally considered apart from its immediate context of 2.17-3.18. Romans 3.19-26, however, follows a lengthy critique of Jewish boasting and deeds of the law vis-à-vis Justification.

With verse 19 Paul reverts to the Law and the Jews. The Law tells the Jews that they are sinful ‘for by the law is the knowledge of sin’ (v. 20). With the Jews thus included in the company of sinners, ‘every mouth’ is ‘stopped and the whole world’ is ‘guilty before God’. From this Paul makes the very important assertion that ‘by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight’. This however is to state the truth negatively. He then proceeds to state it positively, but still in the context of the Law and the Jews.

Rom. 3.21-23

‘The righteousness of God’ (vv. 21,22): Morris’ definition seems to fit rather well in these two verses, ‘a right standing that comes from God and is the gift of God’ (p. 34). In view of the emphasis on sin in the preceding verses (1.18-3.20), summarized in 3.9, ‘both Jews and Greeks are all under sin’, and 3.23, ‘for all have sinned’, the righteousness of God as his covenant faithfulness to Israel is not at all prominent.

Paul begins with the thesis that the righteousness of God is choris, ‘without’, the law (v. 21a). Simon Gathercole observes that the New Perspective’s reading of this is problematic. It does not, as propounded by NP scholars, signify God’s acceptance of Gentiles. Rather, ‘Paul is declaring that both Jew and gentile must receive justification apart from works of the Law, because neither is in possession of such obedience. Paul parallels “apart from the Law” not with those who are “within the Law” (3.19) but with “through faith”: he contrasts the ways of receiving the righteousness of God, not who is receiving it.’

While Gathercole’s point is valid, nonetheless in view of the preceding context, especially verses 19 and 20 with the mention of ‘law’ and ‘the deeds of the law’, ‘without the law’ primarily parallels the ‘faith of Jesus Christ’, pisteos Iesou Christou (v. 22). Paul is thus contrasting primarily, but not exclusively, the bases or ‘grounds’ of the righteousness of God: i.e. the law/deeds of the law (v. 20) as opposed to the faith of Jesus Christ, rather than who is receiving it, in this matter of Justification.

Although ‘without the law’, the righteousness of God is ‘being witnessed by the law and the prophets’ (v. 21). Probably Paul means by this that the righteousness of God is both promised and expounded in ‘riddles’ and prophesied in the Old Testament Scripture (cf. Rom.1.2 and Acts 10.43).

So then, the ‘ground’ of the righteousness of God here in Romans confirms Phil. 3.9. It is an ellipse. The two foci are the ‘faith of Jesus Christ’ and all that ‘believe’. While Luther rightly emphasized the subjective ‘believe’ aspect, the New Perspective has helped remind us of the objective ‘faith of Jesus Christ’ aspect.

‘Unto all’, eis pantas, reinforces the interpretation of ‘the righteousness of God’ as primarily the grace of God which declares that believers are judicially ‘in the right’. KJV’s ‘and upon all’, however, is not in the DB/UBS Greek text.

In view of the preceding context of 1.16-3.20 and particularly 3.9, ‘both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin’, the ‘all’ of verses 22 and 23 must mean both Jews and Gentiles. Verse 22b, ‘for there is no difference’ must likewise mean ‘no difference between Jews and Gentiles, whereas these verses have been traditionally understood to mean ‘everyone’. It really amounts to the same thing but it is crucial for us to realize that for Paul, in the life and death matter of sin and Justification the Jews have no prerogative; neither Jews nor Gentiles are at an advantage. It is, as they say, a level playing field.

Rom. 3.24-26

In the preceding discourse of 1.18-3.20, the wrath of God against sin, God’s judgment of sin on the Day of Judgment and Jewish transgressions of the Law, are prominent. The traditional Protestant understanding of justification in this passage as forgiveness of sins (especially v. 25: ‘the remission of sins that are past’) and the forensic declaration of a right status/acquittal with regard to the individual is therefore correct. Thus the righteousness of God must surely mean primarily the righteous attribute of God and the grace of God which forgives/acquits and declares righteous the sinner rather than the New Perspective’s interpretation as God’s covenant faithfulness, although this is also meant in view of ‘the faith of God’ not made ‘without effect’ by ‘the unbelief of some’ Jews (v. 3.3).

Justification is a gift of God due to God’s mercy (‘freely by his grace’, v. 24). This reinforces the idea of a legal ‘right standing’. ‘That it is a gift points to a forensic activity. God gives the status of being “right”’ (Morris, p. 34).

Paul understands the Cross as ‘redemption’, apolutroseo. ‘Redemption means the paying of a price to set someone free (cf. 1 Cor. 6.20; 7.23).’ It highlights ‘the costly nature of our salvation’ (Morris, pp. 71,72).

He also understands it as hilasterion (v. 25). The KJV has translated the word correctly as ‘propitiation’. Most modern translations regrettably do not understand it as such. This propitiation of God’s wrath (1.18) is effected through the death of Christ (‘his blood’) and appropriated by sinners through faith. The death of Christ is therefore a propitiatory sacrifice.

Referring to the Jewish sacrificial cultus and ‘the forbearance of God’ (v. 25), F. F. Bruce says, ‘Until the coming of Christ some token “passing over” (paresis) of sins might have been conceded in the forbearance of God, but now (nuni de) with the coming of Christ, the true and perfect hilasterion had been set forth.’

Jesus’ coming and in particular, his death on the Cross (‘at this time’), is the eschatological fulfillment of the ages in which God has acted to ‘declare his righteousness: that he might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus’ (v. 26). It is a time of the Crisis.

‘That he might be just and the justifier’, while declaring the grace aspect of his righteousness also shows forth his righteous attribute. Thus Morris writes, ‘when God saves, he saves in a way that accords with right.’ (p. 33), and ‘specifically we need to know that our penalty is paid and our acquittal brought about in a way that is right’ (p.71).

Paul says God’s righteousness is a declaration that he is ‘just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus’ (v. 26). In other words, the righteousness of God refers to both the righteous (ethical) attribute of God and his grace through which he forgives and imputes a righteous status to and on, the sinner. That both meanings are involved is also evident in the words Paul uses of God’s righteousness. The first is particularly emphasized in the word ‘declare’, endeixin (vv. 25,26) while both are equally stressed in the words ‘revealed’, apokalupetai (1.17) and ‘manifested’, pephanerotai(v. 21).

So, to know (in the heart) that God is righteous and justifies us sinners is to know his saving power (1.16) and to know Jesus Christ as Lord (1.4). This is the gospel. ‘The church stands or falls with Christ’ (D. Garlington). True, but it is in Justification that Christ and God’s saving power become ‘real’ and ‘powerful’ to us. Luther’s dictum is still correct: Justification is indeed articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae.

Contra N.T. Wright, Justification by faith is therefore not a second-order doctrine. The ‘righteousness of God’ is to Paul the core of the gospel. ‘Gunther Bornkamm is an example of those who see justification by faith as central to Paul’s theology. He calls it “the basic theme in his theology”, and maintains that “his whole preaching, even when it says nothing expressly about justification, can be properly understood only when taken in closest connection with that doctrine and related to it”’ (Morris, p. 69 n. 39).

Rom. 3.27-31
From his exposition of the righteousness of God vis-à-vis God’s grace, the cross and faith, Paul asserts first, that ‘boasting’ is ‘excluded’. ‘Boasting’ refers primarily to the boasting of the Jew in 2.17-29: his ‘boast of God’ (2.17), his ‘boast of the law’ (2.23) and of circumcision (2.25-29); see Dunn (pp. 200,201). The NEB understands it as ‘human pride’ but this is quite off the mark.
It may, however, also include the boasting of ‘deeds of the law’ (3.20), implying works-righteousness. Simon Gathercole has shown that there is in first century Judaism ‘a firm belief in final vindication on the basis of works. Obedience leads to final justification (italics mine).’Also Charles L. Quarles posits that ‘Jews of the Diaspora with no access to the temple and sectarian Jews who had temporarily abandoned the temple sought atonement for sin through personal acts of righteousness rather than temple sacrifice. Motifs in Sirach suggest that even a leading scribe of Jerusalem, approximately 250 years before the destruction of the temple, substituted acts of righteousness for atoning rituals of the temple…When atonement for failure to observe the law is accomplished by compensatory acts of obedience to the law, works-righteousness, at least to some degree, seems unavoidable.’

What does Paul imply in the clause ‘boasting is excluded’? Most probably he implies that in this matter of Justification, ‘election’ as marked by possession of the Law, is of no moment at all; what is definitive is the law of faith, not the law of works. Instead of using the word ‘principle’ Paul uses the word law, nomos, because of the preeminent place the law holds in Jewish self-identity. The ‘law of works’ must therefore mean simply the ‘principle of the works of the Law’ and not the principle of generic works (i.e. religious and good works), as traditionally understood in Protestantism. In other words, where Justification is concerned, Jews have no advantage or prerogative over the Gentiles.

From this Paul draws the very important conclusion that ‘a man’, whether Jew or Gentile, ‘is justified by faith without the deeds of the law’ (v. 28). This reaffirms his assertions in verses 20-22: that deeds of the law cannot justify; that the righteousness of God is manifested without the law; and that it is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all them that believe.

With this very important conclusion Paul draws the corollary that the Gentiles will be justified as Gentiles. They do not need to become Jews through circumcision and observance of the works of the Law. This corollary is further supported by the fact that, first, if God is God of the Jews only it would mean there is another God of the Gentiles. God, however, is one. Secondly, God will justifyboth circumcised and uncircumcised by faith. (Incidentally, this verse teaches the future dimension of Justification; see Dunn, pp. 207,208.)

Rom. 4.1-25
In verse 5 God is described as ‘him that justifieth the ungodly’. In verses 7 and 8 the man whose ‘iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered’, ‘the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin’ is considered blessed. In verse 25 ‘justification’ is set in contrast to ‘offences’. Justification and righteousness would therefore primarily mean ‘forgiveness of sins’. In view of the oft-repeated occurrence of logizesthai (translated variously by the KJV as ‘counted’, ‘reckoned’ and ‘imputeth’) the ‘acquittal/a right status’ dimension of Justification would seem to be particularly dominant.

Rom. 5.1-21
In verse 2 ‘the glory of God’ would mean negatively ‘without sin’ (cf. 3.23). In verse 6 we read ‘Christ died for the ungodly’, and in verse 8 ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’. Justification, righteousness and righteous are set against offence, sin, judgment, condemnation and sinners in vv. 12-21. Clearly Justification is to be understood as acquittal and a right standing.

Rom. 8.1-39
In verse 10, righteousness is contrasted with sin. ‘Justifieth’ (v. 33) is likewise contrasted with ‘condemneth’ (v. 34). Very likely therefore the same nuance is to be attached to ‘justified’ in verse 30. Again a juridical right standing is meant in these verses.

Rom. 9.30-10.10

In this passage ‘righteousness’ appears eight times; ‘God’s righteousness’ and ‘the righteousness of God’ once each. The words are associated with ‘saved’ and its cognates in the immediate context of the ninth through the eleventh chapters (9.27; 10.1,9,10,13; 11.25). Perhaps the key to understand what Paul means by ‘saved’ and hence ‘righteousness/God’s righteousness’ is 11.26,27: ‘There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins’. If so, then it would mean the turning away of ‘ungodliness from Jacob’ and the taking away of ‘their sins’, that is, the forgiveness of sins.

Another important aspect of ‘righteousness/God’s righteousness’ from the immediate context would be membership of the true Israel (9.6). It means being the children of Abraham, children of God, the elect, and God’s beloved people (9.7,8,25,26).

Tit. 3.7
‘That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.’

In view of the sins detailed in the preceding verse 3, the meaning of ‘justified’ here seems to be similar to that of 1 Cor. 6.11, that is acquittal/righteous status. Compare (a) Titus 3.3 with 1Cor. 6.9,10 and (b) ‘by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost’ of Titus 3.5 with ‘but ye were washed, but ye were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God’ of 1 Cor. 6.11.


In Galatians and Philippians it seems that covenant membership is the primary, but not exclusively so, meaning of Justification. In Corinthians and Titus the traditional understanding as ‘forgiveness of sins, acquittal and a right standing’ is primary, but again not exclusively so.

In Romans, however, both aspects are conspicuously present, though the traditional understanding seems to be more so. Although Paul’s exposition of Justification by faith in 3.19-26 deals primarily with forgiveness of sins/a right status, the very Jewish immediate context of the passage (i.e. 2.17-3.18 and 3.27-31) shows that Justification as covenant membership is at the back of his mind. Furthermore Justification as covenant membership and the righteousness of God as referring to his covenant faithfulness are particularly obvious in Romans 9 through 11.

Luther might not have understood Justification fully and he might have even misunderstood first century Judaism but he was instrumental in the Church’s recovery of the all-sufficiency of the faith of Christ and the faith of the believer. These were undermined by the Church of Rome which taught that faith had to be supplemented by good/religious works and the Church’s mediation through its priests, monks and saints.

Luther’s exclusive focus on the individual/’acquittal’ dimension of Justification has resulted in the Protestants’ neglect of the ‘covenant’ and other aspects. At the time, however, there were circumstances that called for such particular emphasis. Luther’s age was one where the Christian psyche was almost wholly community-magisterial dictated, leaving no room for the self. The other was the wrong teaching, as mentioned, of the R.C. Church.

Wright’s understanding that Justification by Faith is actually the great ecumenical doctrine rather than that which divides Protestants and Roman Catholics is therefore faulty. It is questionable whether Roman Catholics, theologically, are truly members of God’s people when they are not taught and therefore are not aware of sola fidei, solus Christus, sola gratia and soli Deo gloria.‘Calling upon the name of the Lord’ presumes faith and faith is more than mere credence of Church dogma or Creeds. Faith, says Luther, is ‘God’s work in us’. It is God himself enabling us to repent and humbly and gratefully accept God’s grace. Such a one will have the ‘patient continuance’ to do good, to ‘seek for glory and honor and immortality’ (what Wright calls, ‘the totality of a life lived’) and thus be justified on the Day of Judgment (Rom. 2.7).

Dunn and Wright have rediscovered the ‘covenant membership’ dimension of Justification. Wright, however, has soft-pedaled the ‘putting to rights’ (soteriological) component of Justification in favor of the ‘covenant membership’ (ecclesiological) component. Both aspects are present in Paul’s epistles examined above, though not equally so in each epistle.

Finally, if I may use another metaphor besides the ellipse in this essay, Justification is a gold coin. The traditional understanding as forgiveness of sins/acquittal/a right status is one side of the coin and covenant membership, the other. And on its milled edges are the words “live unto God’ and ‘life’.

F. F. Bruce, The Curse of the Law
R. A. Cole, Tyndale NT Commentary on Galatians (IVP/Eerdmans)
C.H. Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today (Collins)

J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law (Westminster/John Knox Press)

Don Garlington, Review of Simon J. Gathercole’s ‘Where is boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5’

Simon J. Gathercole, ”After the New Perspective: Works, Justification and Boasting in Early Judaism and Romans 1-5“, Ph.D thesis, Durham University

Ralph Martin, Tyndale NT Commentary on Philippians (IVP/Eerdmans)

Leon Morris, New Testament Theology (Zondervan)

NEB: New English Bible (Oxford/Cambridge)

Charles L. Quarles, ”The New Perspective and Means of Atonement in Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period”

Bruce L. Shelley, Church History (Word Publishing)

Stephen Tomkins, A Short History of Christianity (Eerdmans)

Biblical quotations are from the King James Version.

I would like to thank elder Khor Tong Keng, M.A., M.Div. for his comment on Luther which I have incorporated into this essay.

What Is the New Perspective on Paul?

by Edward L. Hamilton

Over the last three decades, a series of scholarly developments known as the “new perspective on Paul” has challenged traditional interpretations of the theology of the Pauline epistles, particularly Galatians and Romans as they have been employed in the post-Reformation debate concerning the relationship of faith, works, and salvation.

Important early contributors to the new perspective include E.P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn, and their ideas have subsequently undergone substantial extension and revision by the evangelical New Testament scholar N.T. Wright.

In Western theology, at least from the time of Augustine, the “forensic” or law-court imagery has been central to the formulation of salvation as a foundational dogma in both the Protestant and Catholic churches. The new perspective invites us not to reject that model, but rather to think critically about how it would have functioned in the writing of Paul, a distinctively Jewish author of the first century.

One may identify three fundamental questions that the new perspective seeks to re-evaluate: First, what does it mean to be “justified,” and how does justification occur? Second, what is the “righteousness of God,” and how does it relate to our own righteousness? Third, where is the locus of the debate between “faith” and “works” in Paul’s letters to Rome and Galatia, and what implications does this issue have for modern readers?

First, justification. In Greek, “justified” is a verb related to the noun “righteousness,” and to “be justified” has historically been understood as the way by which we are “found righteous.”

For Jews of the second temple period, this amounted to an expectation of some future event within history where God would openly vindicate the nation of Israel, revealing that the Jewish people had been faithful worshipers of the one true God, YHWH. Thus, justification was essentially a corporate event and an eschatological event. One would be justified if one was found to be a member of the community of faithful followers of God on that future day when judgment would be rendered.

In later Christian theology, however, justification came to be increasingly understood as the individual event by which sinners were released from sin, and inducted into new life — thus, justification became identified as a word describing the way by which the individual was initiated into salvation. The new perspective encourages a return to the older understanding of justification, as the present-day promise that God will ultimately recognize the status of His chosen people and reward them for their faithfulness, and not as the process by which that promise is obtained.

Second, the righteousness of God. This phrase, used frequently by Paul but rarely elsewhere in the New Testament, has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways. The new perspective, especially in the work of Wright, has emphasized that this concept is only fully meaningful within the Jewish covenantal framework. God’s “righteousness” is not simply His formal activity as a punisher of evil and rewarder of good, nor His intrinsic holiness, but a quality of the execution of His specific responsibilities under the covenant formed with Abraham, renewed through Moses, and claimed as an inheritance by all of Abraham’s descendants.

As such, one cannot properly speak of righteousness as if it were a metaphysical entity that could be transferred, whether “imputed” or “imparted.” Righteousness is a verdict, not a substance. One deems a judge “righteous” if he renders judgment fairly and impartially, in accordance with valid laws and contracts. A defendant, on the other hand, is declared “righteous” if a judge rules in his favor. God’s righteousness belongs to a completely different category than our righteousness, and cannot be separated from Him nor shared with anyone else.

So then, third, the long-standing debate over “faith” and “works” may be revisited with a refreshed awareness of the significance of the terms involved, challenging both sides to revise their traditional assumptions. The theme of justification, as addressed in Romans and Galatians, should not be viewed as a primer on how one “becomes saved,” but rather as Paul’s attempt to provide guidance to churches with both Jewish and non-Jewish members concerning the redefinition of the boundaries of “God’s chosen people.”

The Jewish people, struggling to preserve their identity in the face of pagan oppression and dilution, had developed a strong emphasis on cultural boundary-markers such as circumcision. Paul, alarmed that such ritualism is now serving as a wedge between communal affirmation of the salvation shared by people of all races and cultures, critiques the misuse of the Law in this way. He emphasizes that justification — confidence of one’s identity as a member of the people of God — is not based on these sorts of works, but on the faith response to God’s gospel common to Jews and Gentiles alike.

Justification is “through faith alone,” in the sense that additional customs and rituals are not necessary to delineate the boundaries of the new Christ-centered body of believers. But salvation (the process by which we are saved) should not be reduced to justification (the declaration that we have been saved) — and thus the rejection of specific “works” (in the narrow sense of ritualistic observances) as mandatory, in the context of the justification debate, should not be taken as a blanket rejection of any positive relationship between faith and works (in the broad sense of applied ethics and obedience to God), as if they were mutually exclusive polar opposites.

N.T. Wright’s Treatment of the Theology of Justification

by Todd McClure

N.T. Wright is one of the prominent voices of what has been labeled the “New Perspective on Paul,” a currently debated subject in the Church today. The crux of the “New Perspective” is a redefining of Paul’s writings on justification/righteousness.

I want to start out by summarizing Wright’s view of Paul’s doctrine of justification which is broken into three main categories, and then unpack them by going into the background of Paul’s worldview and the context that brings to the language he uses in his letters, then we will look at a couple of the main references used in support of this view.

Wright’s Summarization of Paul’s Doctrine of Justification

  1. Covenant. Justification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods will be shown to be in the wrong.
  2. Law court. Justification functions like the verdict in the law court: by acquitting someone, it confers on that person the status ‘righteous.’ This is the forensic dimension of the futurecovenantal vindication.
  3. Eschatology. This declaration, this verdict, is ultimately to be made at the end of history. Through Jesus, however, God has done in the middle of history what He had been expected to do – and, indeed, will still do – at the end; so that the declaration, the verdict, can be issued already in the present, in anticipation. The events of the last days were anticipatedwhen Jesus died on the cross, as the representative Messiah of Israel, and rose again. The verdict of the last day is therefore now also anticipated in the present, whenever someone believes in the gospel message about Jesus.
  4. Therefore – all who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ are already demarcated as members of the true family of Abraham, with their sins being forgiven.1

The Jewish Context of Justification

For some time, specifically since the Reformation period, many parallels have been made between Paul’s argument against the ‘justification by works’ of Judaism and the reformers’ argument against the ‘justification by works’ of the Catholic Church. Wright argues that if by justification you mean salvation, you are making an argument that Paul did not make. Saul of Tarsus as a Pharisee and theologian was a revolutionary and understood the Torah as a story in search of an ending; and he saw his own task as bringing that ending about.

The story ran like this. Israel had been called by God to be His covenant people; they would be His means for providing light into a darkened world, undoing the sin of Adam and its effects. But Israelhad become sinful and therefore had been sent into exile away from the Promised Land. AlthoughIsrael had returned geographically from her exile, the real exile condition was not yet finished for the promises had not yet been fulfilled. The Temple had not yet been rebuilt, the Messiah had not yet come, the pagans had not yet been reduced to submission and Israel was still deeply compromised and sinful.  “There are three cardinal points of Jewish theology in this period: monotheism, election and eschatology. There is one God, the one true God of all the world; Israel is the people of this one true God; and there is one future for all the world, a future not very far away now, in which the true God will reveal himself, defeat evil, and rescue his people.”2

The keeping of the Torah was the means by which Saul and his contemporaries could hasten the time of the fulfillment of the prophecies. If fulfillment came and Israel was not following Torah, they would be condemned along with the pagans. In other words, the following of the law was not a means of earning salvation; it was a participation in covenant fulfillment. The purpose of God’s covenant with Abraham was not ultimately to choose a people for Himself, but to undo the sin of Adam and through Israel address and save the entire world. Wright now asks, “What would ‘justification’ mean in this context?” Many agree that it is a ‘forensic’ or ‘judicial’ term; Wright calls it a ‘law-court’ term and places it in its Jewish context as the “greatest lawsuit of all”.

In the Jewish context, this courtroom scene is to take place on the great day when YHWH will judge all the nations and rescue His people Israel. “‘Justification’ thus describes the coming great act of redemption and salvation, seen from the point of view of the covenant (Israel is God’s people) on the one hand and the law court on the other (God’s final judgment will be like a great law-court scene with Israel winning the case).”3 Wright’s third category of Paul’s doctrine, eschatology, also has roots in the context of 2nd Temple Judaism. Eschatology is the technical term used to denote in Judaism the expectation of a climatic conclusion to the story of which they were living. This is not ‘end-of-the-world’ language; it is the belief that the climatic moment in history was coming when everything would be sorted out and made right. So, by putting justification and eschatology together, “the Jewish eschatological hope was hope for justification, for God to vindicate his people at last.”4 A major aspect of the Jewish eschatological hope is the resurrection of the saints, so when Saul of Tarsus met the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth on the road to Damascus his eschatological hopes and his current reality came face to face. “God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought He was going to do for Israel at the end of time. Saul had imagined that YHWH would vindicate Israel after her suffering at the hand of the pagans. Instead, he had vindicated Jesus after his suffering at the hand of the pagans.”5

It is very important to have this Jewish context of ‘justification’ and also to continue on with the realization that Paul did not move on to another, new and improved religion. He remained loyal to the God of Abraham; he did not abandon Judaism for something else, he had found the fulfillment of their hopes in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

What is the Gospel?

Ask someone in the church today what the gospel is, and you are likely to get an answer straight off an evangelistic tract that would be handed out on a street corner; a step-by-step recipe of what one must do to gain salvation. Realize that you are a sinner, recognize that you cannot reach God by your own power, repent of your sins, and accept Jesus as your savior by praying this and that prayer. Wright does not want to argue against this use of the word ‘gospel,’ he just wants us to realize that Paul’s use of the word euangelion (‘gospel’ or ‘good news’) did not have this meaning. Some argue whether Paul’s meaning comes from the Hebrew context or the Hellenistic context, but the meanings are not so much different that a distinction really needs to be argued about. The Greek meaning refers to the announcement of a great victory, or a royal birth, or a ruler taking the throne. The Hebrew understanding comes from a series of passages in the book of Isaiah such as:

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (Isaiah 52:7)!6

The gospel for Paul is the proclamation of Jesus, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his kingship and his lordship; these in direct opposition to the authority of the pagan rulers of Rome. Paul sees his new vocation as a herald of the king to the pagan world!

The Righteousness of God

The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ occurs eight times in Paul’s letters, seven of which are in the letter to the Romans. Wright feels that the meaning of this phrase has been greatly obscured in various translations. Wright states that it is pretty obvious to readers of the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures that ‘the righteousness of God’ would have one meaning: God’s own faithfulness to His promises, to the covenant (Isaiah 40-55; Daniel 9).7 “God has made promises; Israel can trust those promises. God’s righteousness is thus cognate to his trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel’s salvation on the other. And at the heart of that picture in Isaiah there stands, of course, the strange figure of the suffering servant through whom God’s righteous purpose is finally accomplished.”8

Earlier the forensic, law-court language of ‘justification’ was discussed and it applies to ‘righteousness’ as well, for the terms are somewhat interchangeable. They come from the same Greek root diakou.

  1. In the Jewish law court there are three parties: the judge, the plaintiff and the defendant. All cases take the form of one party versus the other party, with the judge deciding the issue.
  2. ‘Righteousness’ in this context means something different when applied to the judge from what it means when applied to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Applied to the judge, it means that the judge must try the case according to the law; that he must be impartial; that he must punish sin as it deserves; and that he must support and uphold those who are defenseless and who have no one but him to plead their cause. For the judge to be ‘righteous,’ to have and practice ‘righteousness’ in this forensic setting, is therefore a complex matter to do with the way he handles the case.
  3. For the plaintiff and the defendant, however, to be ‘righteous’ has none of these connotations. They, after all, are not trying the case. For the plaintiff or the defendant to be ‘righteous’ in the biblical sense within the law-court setting is for them to have that status as a result of the decision of the court.9

God, the judge, is ‘righteous’ by judging faithfully and justly, and the defendant is given the status of ‘righteous’ by the judge’s decision. They are not the same ‘righteousness,’ so though righteousness is given it is not imputed.

Justification/Righteousness in Paul’s Letters

Having established the context and language that Paul would be using in his writings, now we can take a look at a few of the pivotal passages in which the righteousness/justification of God is written about by Paul. Because of the parameters of this article, we can by no means go into every reference in Paul’s letters, so we will only look at two of the more pivotal sections.

Philippians 3:2-11

“…and count them rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (vv. 8b-9).

The context of the letter is Paul addressing a congregation in the pagan Roman colony of Philippi. Paul is encouraging his readers to follow him in finding joy in Jesus Christ, to follow his example; for as he was prepared to abandon all his privileges to gain Christ, they should be prepared to do the same. Wright restates the passage this way: “He is saying, in effect: I, though possessing covenant membership according to the flesh, did not regard that covenant membership as something to exploit; I emptied myself, sharing the death of the Messiah; wherefore God has given me the membership that really counts, in which I too will share the glory of Christ.”10

Romans 3:21-26

“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (vv. 21-24).

The church in Rome was both Jewish and Gentile, and in the section leading up to this passage Paul has made it plain that not only is the Gentile world out of touch with its creator and therefore under God’s judgment, but also the Jews, and despite having been given the covenant through which God had intended to redeem the world, they remained in exile, living in sin. So Israel had joined the Gentile world in the defendant’s chair in the law-court of God. Through the faithfulness of Jesus, God is Himself righteous, for He has fulfilled His covenant; He has dealt with sin and vindicated the helpless: “He is ‘the justifier of the one who has faith.’”

My Critique of the ‘New Perspective’

For quite awhile now, especially as I have wrestled with the passages in Romans concerning election and predestination, I have struggled with the way those passages didn’t fit into the context of the letter. The passages were about the unity of the body, so why was Paul giving the breakdown of how salvation works for individuals when he was writing to an audience of believers? So, I must admit that as I have read Wright’s and others’ material on Pauline theology I see this interpretation as fitting contextually where the traditional interpretations haven’t.

As I have read others’ critiques of the “New Perspective,’ I haven’t been impressed because most of them have obviously approached the subject with the predisposed idea of defending their previous beliefs or the Reformed tradition in which they grew up in or under which they studied. As I read these critiques, they make statements that are misinformed, criticizing incorrectly what Wright has written, arguing against a piece of the theology and not looking at the whole.

Thomas Schreiner narrows Wright’s view down to defining God’s righteousness as purely ‘his faithfulness to his covenant,’ and proceeds to argue from the Isaiah passages that God’s righteousness must involve God’s salvation on behalf of His people.11 Wright has clearly stated that salvation is what the covenant was about from the start.

I wish that I had time to dig into the background material that Wright has published establishing the Jewish context in the 2nd Temple period. Though it sounds solid, right now I just have to take his word for it. I have not come close to reading everything that Wright has published on this subject, but I am interested in how his interpretation of the meaning of justification/righteousness in the Pauline letters affects his theology of election which Paul references in the same letters, therefore having the same context of kingdom membership. The context of these letters in dealing with justification is not individualistic, though they come down to the individual, for individuals, not ethnic groups, place their faith in Jesus.

If the doctrine of election and predestination is to be seen in the context of covenant, then this leads to a nationalistic view of predestination rather than an individualistic view. Galatians 3:8 (“The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham”), along with Romans chapter nine, do lead us in the direction that Paul is using the election of God as part of his argument for the righteousness of God in His faithfulness to His covenant to redeem all of creation to Himself through His Son. If the context of covenant moves one’s theology in this direction, I could see this being an argument for Barth’s Christocentric and Unlimited Atonement; that Christ died for all people and the effects of Christ’s death is universal to all people.

I think it is important in the current debate concerning the ‘New Perspective’ that we not throw the baby out with the bathwater while trying to protect certain elements of our theology; the position needs to be looked at as a whole body of work and not an attack on the Reformed tradition.


1 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 131

2 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 31

3 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 33

4 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 34

5 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 36

6 Holy Bible, New American Standard Version

7 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 96

8 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 96

9 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 97-98

10 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 124

11 Thomas Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory In Christ, p.198


Barnett, Paul, Bishop of North Sydney. “Tom Wright and The New Perspective,”, December 2000

Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle, W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids,Michigan 1998

Hamilton, Edward L. “The Righteousness” of Romans and Galatians, and the Gospel of Christ,” The Paul Page, October 2002

Hamilton, Edward L. “What Is the New Perspective on Paul?” The Paul Page, March 2002

Lusk, Rich. “The PCA and the New Perspective on Paul,” Theologia, 2003

Mattison, Mark M. “A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul,” The Paul Page, January 2004

McNeill, John T. ed. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, Battles, Lewis, trans.Westminster John Knox Press, London MCMLX

Piper, John. The Justification of God, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1993

Schreiner, Thomas R. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, Intervarsity Press, Downer Grove, Illinois 2001

Seifrid, Mark A. Christ, our Righteousness, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois 2000

Tanner, Kathryn. “Justification and Justice in a Theology of Grace,” Theology Today, Vol. 55, No. 4 January 1999

Wright, N.T. The Climax of the Covenant, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1991

Wright, N.T. The New Testament and The People of God, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1992

Wright, N.T. “The Shape of Justification,” The Paul Page, April 2001

Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said, W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan 1997

The New Testament and the People of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 1)

Book Review

N.T. Wright, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992, 560 pp.

This massive undertaking lays the epistemological, literary, and historical foundations for Wright’s projected five-volume series (now stretching into six) entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God. Breathtaking in its scope and innovative in its methodology, The New Testament and the People of God is a must-read.

Wright begins by grappling with the knotty issue of hermeneutics (broadly defined) and authority, arguing that theology must be worked out in conjunction with history and literary criticism. He recognizes, however, that epistemology must be addressed first. Epistemologically, Wright rejects not only the naïve positivism which imagines that texts and events can be interpreted “objectively,” but also the subjective phenomenalism which undermines public discourse. The middle road taken by Wright is that of critical realism: Whereas initial observation must be challenged by critical reflection, nevertheless it is possible to grasp something of reality. Though not advocating postmodernism, Wright nevertheless, in good postmodern fashion, makes much of stories as windows into worldviews.

The literary analysis Wright uses is a modified version of A.J. Griemas’ narrative analysis, mapping out initial sequences, topical sequences, and final sequences of biblical stories. Using this tool in the context of critical realism, Wright proposes to study ancient worldviews, mindsets, aims, intentions, and motivations. He is quick to add that this is the discipline of historical study, not psychological speculation.

Wright rejects naïve approaches to Scriptural authority, including the terms of the popular debate about which aspects are “culturally conditioned” and which are “timelessly true,” since after all: “All of the New Testament is ‘culturally conditioned'” (p. 20). The model of authority which Wright proposes is best illustrated as “a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act has been lost” (p. 140). Acts 1 through 4 include Creation, Fall, Israel, and Jesus; the fifth act is to be worked out ourselves in a way consistent with the first four.

Wright then proceeds to map out the worldview of first-century Judaism (or Judaisms), considering its symbols: Temple, Land, Torah, and racial identity. This worldview is explicated in Israel’s core beliefs of creational monotheism, election, and eschatology, understood in a covenantal context. But what is innovative about Wright’s treatment of first-century Judaism is his starting-point in the political turbulence of the time rather than in abstract questions of timeless truths. Before even attempting a description of the Pharisees, Essenes, and Sadducees, Wright outlines the story ofIsrael’s struggle against imperial oppressors from Babylon to Rome, paying particular attention to the Jewish revolt. He writes:

Any suggestion, even by implication, that Jews led untroubled lives with leisure to discuss the finer points of dogmatic theology must be rejected. Jewish society faced major external threats and major internal problems. The question, what it might mean to be a good or loyal Jew, had pressing social, economic and political dimensions as well as cultural and theological ones….the pressing needs of most Jews of the period had to do with liberation — from oppression, from debt, from Rome. Other issues, I suggest, were regularly seen in this light. The hope of Israel, and of most special-interest groups within Israel, was not for post-mortem disembodied bliss, but for a national liberation that would fulfil the expectations aroused by the memory, and regular celebration, of the exodus and, nearer at hand, of the Maccabaean history. Hope focused on the coming of Israel’s god (pp. 169,170).

The corollary for our understanding of Torah and “works of Torah” is that the traditional Protestant caricature of Judaism as a legalistic religion is simply wrong. He writes, for instance:

Torah provided three badges in particular which marked the Jew out from the pagan: circumcision, sabbath, and the kosher laws….Debates about sabbath and purity, therefore, occupied an immense amount of time and effort in the discussions of the learned, as we know from the Mishnah and Talmud. This was not, it should be stressed, because Jews in general or Pharisees in particular were concerned merely for outward ritual or ceremony, nor because they were attempting to earn their salvation (within some sub-Christian scheme!) by virtuous living. It was because they were concerned for the divine Torah, and were therefore anxious to maintain their god-given distinctiveness over against the pagan nations, particularly those who were oppressing them. Their whole raison-d’être as a nation depended on it….it was Torah, and particularly the special badges of sabbath and purity, that demarcated the covenant people, and that therefore provided litmus tests of covenant loyalty and signs of covenant hope….the ‘works of Torah’ were not a legalist’s ladder, up which one climbed to earn the divine favour, but were the badges that one wore as the marks of identity (pp. 237,238).

These observations about the role and function of Torah within Judaism are foundational for Wright’s work on the historical Jesus (volume 2, Jesus and the Victory of God) as well as for Paul (planned for a future volume).

Before sketching out the history of the first-century church in light of this background, Wright argues that Israel’s apocalpytic hope has been grossly misunderstood by many scholars. What Israel hoped for was not an end to this space-time universe, but the end of her exile under foreign domination. Apocalpytic language about the sun darkening and the stars falling from the sky are vivid metaphors, not literal expectations. The purpose of the language is not to describe the end of history, but to invest historical events with their theological meaning, to convey the importance of “earth-shattering” events. Regarding the meaning of salvation in this context, he writes:

A word is necessary at this point about the meaning of the term ‘salvation’ in the context of the Jewish expectation. It ought to be clear by now that within the worldview we have described there can be little thought of the rescue of Israel consisting of the end of the space-time universe, and/or of Israel’s future enjoyment of a non-physical, ‘spiritual’ bliss….Rather, the ‘salvation’ spoken of in the Jewish sources of this period has to do with rescue from the national enemies, restoration of the national symbols, and a state of shalom in which every man will sit under his vine or fig-tree. ‘Salvation’ encapsulates the entire future hope. If there are Christian redefinitions of the term later on, that is another question. For first-century Jews it could only mean the inauguration of the age to come, liberation from Rome, the restoration of the Temple, and the free enjoyment of their own Land (p. 300).

The “kingdom of god” in this historical context was not an abstract ethical ideal or timeless truth, but the expected defeat of Caesar, Herod, and every other tyrant by Israel’s god of justice. When Wright turns to his sketch of the early church, he capitalizes on this insight, uncovering anessentialy Jewish revolutionary underpinning for the Christian confession that Jesus, not Caesar, is the real lord.

After surveying early Christianity and the New Testament in this light, Wright turns his attention to proposing a revised theory of form-criticism which turns the Bultmannian approach on its head: longer narrative units, including particularly controversy stories, likely evolved into shorter apophthegms, not vice versa. So, for instance, even though the Gospel of Thomas likely does contain Jesus sayings independent of the synoptic Gospels, nevertheless as a whole Thomas represents a later development from Jesus’ essentially Jewish message rather than an earlier and more accurate reflection of an essentially non-Jewish Jesus.

In concluding his massive work, Wright outlines the implications of his overall approach. Among his conclusions is that the “two-covenant” approach to Judaism and Christianity advocated by Gagerand Gaston is actually patronizing to Judaism. On the other hand, apart from arguing that early Christianity was no more “anti-Jewish” than any other Jewish sect (like the Pharisees and theEssenes), it does not seem to be sufficiently clear in this volume how Wright can avoid asupersessionist position. Nevertheless, no matter where one stands on these issues, The New Testament and the People of God is a formidable work to be dealt with.

Mark M. Mattison

The New Perspective on Paul – Revised Edition

Book Review

James D.G. Dunn, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008, 551 pp.

When James D.G. Dunn delivered his Manson Memorial Lecture in 1982, he set out to sketch an emerging paradigm in current Pauline studies. Though it wasn’t his intent to label that paradigm or coin a phrase, nevertheless his description of “the new perspective on Paul” struck a chord and became the catchphrase for the new paradigm.

However, the term clearly had some inherent weaknesses. For one, it wasn’t very descriptive; it didn’t convey anything about the content of the emerging approach to Paul. Second, “the new perspective” isn’t so “new” anymore, leaving other scholars to articulate more recent proposals with descriptions like “the fresh perspective on Paul” (Wright, 2000) and a “newer perspective” on Paul (Das, 2003). Thankfully, no one has yet proposed “the new and improved perspective on Paul”! Finally, the prevalence of the label itself has apparently enabled certain critics, primarily conservative Presbyterians, to imagine an entire systematic theology which they awkwardly dub “new perspectivism”!

Nevertheless, for all its weaknesses, the term stuck, partly because it’s still helpful as a shorthand way of describing the seismic shift in approaches to Pauline studies since E.P. Sanders’ monumental Protestant reevaluation of the Second-Temple Judaism with which Paul would have been familiar. Now in his 2008 book The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition, Dunn sums up the history of this new perspective and provides a thorough reevaluation. In his opening Preface, Dunn comments on the terminology itself insofar as he chose it as the title of his new work:

I need to add at once that the title should not be read as ‘the new perspective on Paul’, as though that was the only ‘new perspective’ possible or accessible to students of Paul; given the brief history of the title, it would have been more misleading to entitle the volume ‘A New Perspective on Paul’. Nor should it be read as ‘the new perspective on Paul’, as implying that any and every old perspective is thereby rendered passé or condemned to the dustbin; quite the contrary, as the opening essay should make clear. Nor should it be read as a claim to provide a definitive statement of ‘The New Perspective on Paul’; in the pages that follow, I speak only for myself, not as representative of some kind of ‘school’. Nor, perhaps I should add, is ‘the new perspective’ some kind of ‘dogma’ which is somehow binding on its ‘adherents’; that is not how properly critical (including self-critical) exegesis and historical scholarship goes about its task (ix, x).

This anthology of Dunn’s key contributions to the new perspective includes twenty essays published between 1983 and 2004, including his original Manson Memorial Lecture “The New Perspective on Paul,” several follow-up essays on “The Works of the Law,” his 1991 article “The Justice of God,” and “In Search of Common Ground,” his summary of the Third Durham-TübingenResearch Symposium on Earliest Christianity and Judaism on ‘Paul and the Law’ in 1994. Of particular interest, however, are the brand new chapters prepared for this volume: a concluding chapter on Philippians 3.2-14 and the New Perspective on Paul, and a new 50,000-word introductory essay (expanded for the Eerdmans Revised Edition) which alone is worth the price of the book.

That introduction, “The New Perspective: whence, what and whither?” is divided into five parts. In the first section (1-17), Dunn provides a personal account of the evolution of his thought on Paul, including the impact of Sanders and further insights from Qumran, including notably 4QMMT. This section ends with a helpful summary of what Dunn means by “the new perspective on Paul”: It builds on Sanders’ reappraisal of Second-Temple Judaism; it observes that the social function of the law in separating Jews from Gentiles was integral to that Judaism; it notes that Paul’s teaching on justification and “works of law” belong in that context; and it protests that the church, in its failure to recognize the full scope of Paul’s doctrine of justification, “may have ignored or excluded a vital factor in combating the nationalism and racialism which has so distorted and diminished Christianity past and present” (16,17).

In the second section (17-41), Dunn provides a gratifyingly spirited counter-response to many of his critics, including Seyoon Kim, Simon Gathercole, Mark Seifrid, Mark Elliott, and a host of others, including more caustic critics such as Carl Trueman (who has since acknowledged his misrepresentation) and Lee Gatiss, who incorrectly surmised that Dunn has no firsthand knowledge of the writings of Martin Luther.

The third section, “Taking the debate forward” (41-58), is an important reappraisal of current issues, including particularly Dunn’s continuing reflection on Galatians 3.10-14 in light of further criticism and “the later Paulines, particularly Eph. 2.8-10, but also 2 Tim. 1.9-10 and Tit. 3.5-6” (41), which have not received enough attention by scholars working through the new perspective.

In the fourth section (58-95), Dunn addresses what he considers to be the most substantive issues, which revolve around the tension between election and judgment both in Second-Temple Judaism and in Paul. In this section he emphasizes Paul’s teaching regarding final judgment according to works, but even here he strives to preclude misunderstanding by those who would characterize Dunn as anti-Lutheran:

Critics, please note: my concern is not to argue that Paul’s understanding of salvation was synergistic; I have no desire to promote a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian interpretation of Paul; I have no doubt that I and all other believers in Christ will be saying ‘the prayer of humble access’ throughout our lives and to the end. My concern is rather twofold: (a) to question whether the charge of synergism should be laid so confidently at the door of Judaism when some of Paul’s language seems vulnerable to the same charge; and (b) to ask proponents of Pauline ‘monergism’ to take more seriously and with due seriousness the other Pauline teaching and exhortations referred to above. In the latter connection, I have to insist that it is Paul’s own teaching and urgings which force the issue upon us. According to 2 Cor. 5.10, the judgment on each will be according to what each has done. Even if done by (the indwelling) Christ or in the power of the Spirit, the doer is the individual and judgment will be in accordance with that doing. It is that Pauline understanding of final judgment which has to be integrated with the Pauline understanding of justification by faith (88,89).

Most importantly, in his consideration of whether the new perspective’s reevaluation of the law diminishes the need for Christ, Dunn helpfully demonstrates how Paul’s christology precludes the polarization (articulated so forcefully by Schweitzer) between the categories of “justification” and “participation in Christ.” Specifically, Dunn argues that “the forensic metaphor of justification” is only one of three models of salvation in Paul, the other two being the gift of the Spirit and identification with Christ – identification with Christ, that is, “as a process to be worked through and not simply astatus to be accepted” (93).

In Dunn’s fifth and concluding part (96-97), he reiterates that Christian scholars cannot return to the old caricature of Judaism as a religion of dry legalism and that while the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is still necessary, it is equally important to recover the full scope of Paul’s doctrine of justification, particularly its social and corporate dimension. Paul’s tension between justification by faith and judgment according to works needs to be maintained, as well as the fundamental point that for Paul, the eschatological significance of Christ was the primary difference between his gospel and the traditions of Israel.

Overall, Dunn’s latest volume is an exceptional contribution to the ongoing dialogue. One of its few shortcomings might relate to the scope of its counter-criticism. Dunn’s principal dialogue partners are clearly those conservative Christian reactionaries whom Pamela Eisenbaum has described as “neotraditionalists”; particularly notable is his lack of engagement with important contributions by Jewish scholars on Paul, like Eisenbaum herself and most notably Mark Nanos (although references to Daniel Boyarin and Alan Segal do turn up in a few footnotes).

Returning to the comments with which this review opened, one final question remains for this reviewer. Clearly, during the last thirty years the new perspective on Paul has become the consensus position for a majority of biblical scholars (remaining an issue only for the “neotraditionalists” mentioned above). Given that, and given subsequent developments, such as the more recent trend in Pauline studies which considers Paul’s writings in the political context of imperial Rome, might it not be appropriate at some point to speak less of “the new perspective on Paul” and to speak in a more precise (and historically useful) way of “the quest for the historical Paul,” of which the Sanders revolution and the trend of Paul and Empire may be considered different phases along the way? That, of course, is for others to decide; the question is here simply posed.

At any rate, for the present no student of the new perspective on Paul can afford to overlook Dunn’s latest monumental contribution to the ongoing discussion. The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition belongs on the bookshelf of every Pauline scholar.

Mark M. Mattison

The New Perspective on Paul – Book Review

Book Review

Michael B. Thompson (Cambridge: Grove Books Unlimited), 2002, 28 pp.

This little booklet from the Grove Biblical Series is probably the best introduction to the new perspective published to date in evangelical circles. Thorough yet accessible, Thompson’s book surveys nearly all of the relevant issues.

Like most treatments of the new perspective, Thompson begins with a description of the “old” (primarily “Lutheran”) perspective on Paul (pp. 4-7), followed by a description of the work of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright (pp. 8-12). To this point, Thompson’s study reads like a hundred others (including several on the Paul Page). However, at the heart of his booklet (pp. 13-17) Thompson presents his own plausible synthesis, followed by a discussion of potential concerns and theological pitfalls (pp. 18-21) and finally practical benefits of the new perspective (pp. 22-24).

Several concerns are dismissed as unfounded: The concern, for instance, that the new perspective compromises the doctrine of justification by faith (pp. 18ff) or the doctrine of the atonement (p. 19). However, Thompson addresses more substantive concerns as well. He provides a brief critique of the “two-covenant” approach to Judaism and Christianity (pp. 20,21), albeit with sensitivity to the problems posed by the Holocaust (pp. 21, 28, n. 29). He also admits shortcomings in the areas of anthropology and eschatology (p. 21) in a balanced, nuanced assessment.

Thompson addresses the issues of Protestant-Catholic dialogue (p. 19) and Jewish-Christian dialogue (p. 22) in a way consistent with the approach of N.T. Wright. Finally, a stellar bibliography of significant books and articles rounds out this highly informed little volume.

It’s easily read, and the layout is pleasant. The text is broken up by several well-placed pull quotes. One pull quote on page 14 is a little puzzling, taking on an entirely different meaning when pulled out of context, but the other quotations are well chosen.

As an introduction and explanation of the new perspective for evangelical Christians, this booklet is invaluable.

Mark M. Mattison

The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West

Essay Review

Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress), 1976, pp. 78-96. First published in English in Harvard Theological Review, 56 (1963), pp. 199-215.
Reviewed by Bill DeJong

Legend has it that the apostle Paul was “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked.” This physical profile of Paul, found in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and composed by a second century presbyter fromAsia on the basis of circulating traditions, was seriously doubted by Tertullian, but ardently believed by his contemporary, Hippolytus of Rome.

This early lack of consensus regarding Paul’s physical profile also characterizes current depictions of his psychological profile. Whereas since Augustine Christians have generally regarded Paul’s conversion as the transformation of a troubled conscience, convicted of sin by the law, to a comfortable conscience, soothed by Christ and His remedy of forgiveness, Krister Stendahl proposes that Paul’s conscience, according to the biblical presentation at least, was remarkably robust and rarely if ever plagued.

The former professor at the Divinity School of Harvard University first presented this critique of the traditional analysis of Paul’s conscience, not insignificantly, at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association on September 3, 1961. Stendahl’s thesis, which was first published in Swedish (1960), then revised and published in English (1963), has taken its place in Pauline scholarship as one of the pivotal essays in the formation of what James D.G. Dunn has dubbed “the new perspective on Paul.”

According to Stendahl, the quest of the plagued conscience began with Augustine whoseConfessions are “the first great document in the history of introspective conscience” and climaxed with Luther (p. 85). Prior to Augustine, the church had read Paul accurately in terms of the question, what does the Messiah’s arrival mean for (a) the law (not legalism) and (b) the relationship between Jews and Gentiles? Since Augustine, the church has misread Paul in terms of the question, how can I find a gracious God?

Luther and the subsequent reformers read Paul’s statements about faith and works, law and gospel, Jews and Gentiles “in the framework of late medieval piety” (pp. 85-86) such that the law quickly became associated with legalism. “Where Paul was concerned about the possibility for Gentiles to be included in the messianic community, his statements are now read as answers to the quest for assurance about man’s salvation out of a common human predicament” (p. 86).

To illustrate what he means, Stendahl appeals to Luther’s understanding of Galatians 3:24 to illustrate the second use of the law. Whereas Paul clearly envisioned the law as the custodian for the Jews until the arrival of the Messiah, Luther reversed the argument to assert that the law is the schoolmaster for everyone to crush self-righteousness and lead to Christ (pp. 86,87). Furthermore, the law is no longer the law of Moses which has become obsolete, but God’s moral imperative as such.

Stendahl concludes, “Paul’s argument that the Gentiles must not and should not come to Christ via the Law, i.e., via circumcision, etc. has turned into a statement according to which all men must come to Christ with consciences properly convicted by the Law and its insatiable requirements for righteousness. So drastic is the reinterpretation once the original framework of ‘Jews and Gentiles’ is lost, and the Western problems of conscience become its unchallenged and self-evident substitute” (p. 87).

Stendahl derives central support for this thesis from Phillippians 3:6, where Paul alleges that prior to his conversion he kept the law blamelessly. What he regards and discards as refuse in his prior life are not his shortcomings in law-keeping, but his achievements and distinctions as a Jew, from circumcision to persecuting the Christian church. This interpretation, alleges Stendahl, finds support in the narrative of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 which is not portrayed in terms of the restoration of a plagued conscience (p. 80), but in terms of his calling to apostleship (p. 85).

Paul’s chief sin, according to Stendahl, was his persecution of the church, the climax of his dedication to the Jewish faith (Gal.1.13; Phil.3.6). When Paul says that Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom he was chief, he is not expressing contrition in the present tense, but referring back to his career of blaspheming and persecuting. God, however, had revealed to him his true Messiah and made him an apostle and a prototype of sinner’s salvation (cf. Rom.5:6-11).

But what about Romans 2 and 3 which deal with the impossibility of law-keeping? Stendahl rightly indicates that the law never expected perfection of the Jew but made provisions for repentance and forgiveness. Paul’s objective in these chapters is simply to show his readers that the law was helpless to Israel because ultimately it pronounced upon her the same guilty sentence under which the Gentiles already lived.

Paul makes these remarks, Stendahl observes, to introduce the new avenue of salvation for Jews and Gentiles which has opened up in Christ, a salvation not based upon law, which formerly distinguished the two. The old covenant, with its provisions of forgiveness and grace, is no longer valid; salvation must be found in Christ. Christ, therefore, is not the answer to a plagued conscience, but the new avenue of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles (p. 81).

That a plagued conscience was a problem for Paul is true neither prior to, nor after, his conversion. It is difficult to find “any evidence that Paul the Christian had suffered under the burden of conscience regarding personal shortcomings which he would label ‘sins'” (Italics original, p. 82). Forgiveness is the term for salvation used least of all in Pauline writings and not at all in the “undisputed” Pauline epistles (footnote 4, p. 82).

Paul knew that the baptized were not free from sin, but such sin apparently did not trouble his conscience. In fact, in Acts 23:1, he says, “Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day” (cf. 24:16). He did struggle with his body (1 Cor. 9:27), but the tone is one of confidence. Romans 9:1 and 2 Cor.1:12 both witness to his good conscience, the confidence of which reaches its highest pitch in 2 Cor.5:10ff., where Paul expresses certainty that the Lord will approve of him. His “robust conscience is not shaken, but strengthened by his awareness of a final judgment which has not yet come” (cf. 1 Cor.4:4; p. 90).

To search for a statement in which Paul would speak about himself as a sinner is futile, argues Stendahl. He does often speak of ‘weakness’ (2 Cor.11.21ff; 2 Cor. 12.9-10), but weakness is unrelated to sin or conscience (v. 7), with the exception of Romans 5, where ‘weak’ is synonymous with sinner (p. 91).

The last section of the essay is devoted to Romans 7 about which Stendahl asserts that Paul is involved in an argument about the law, not man’s ego or predicament. In fact, the ego is acquitted in the words: “Now if I do what I do not want, then it is not I who do it, but the sin which dwells in me” (Stendahl’s italics). If Paul were describing man’s predicament, this line of thought would be impossible. The human impasse has been argued in Romans 1-3 and every possible excuse has been carefully ruled out.

Paul is using the familiar anthropological distinction between what one ought to do and what one does to distinguish good Law from bad Sin, thereby enabling Paul to blame Sin and Flesh and to rescue Law as a good gift of God. Subsequent interpreters did not struggle with law in the sense that Paul did and thus reduced this passage to anthropology and the nature of man and sin. “This is what happens when one approaches Paul with the Western question of an introspective conscience” (p. 93). “The West for centuries has wrongly surmised that the biblical writers were grappling with problems which no doubt are ours, but which never entered their consciousness” (p. 95).

Stendahl’s essay, which weaves together biblical exegesis, historical interpretation and sociological analysis, is delightfully provocative and demonstrative of a brilliant mind. He is entirely correct in his assertion that Western interpreters of Paul have all too often reduced the real dynamic in his polemic, i.e., the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, to one of morbid introspection and individual psychology and thereby all too eagerly exchanged historia salutis for ordo salutis. His remarks about Galatians 3:24 are entirely to the point.

Nevertheless, Stendahl’s contention that consciences troubled by sin have their origin in Augustine and the subsequent Western mind is untenable. King David, hardly a Westerner, enjoyed a robust conscience for the most part (cf. 2 Sam.22:22; Pss. 7, 17, 18, 26), but also repeatedly sought forgiveness to ease his plagued conscience. In Psalm 32, he laments, “When I kept silent, my bones grew old, through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me … I acknowledged my sin to you” and in Psalm 51 he cries out, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”

Jesus presents this latter petition as the sine qua non of the believer in his parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18. It was the tax collector who went home justified because he humbled himself, beating his breast and crying out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

Luther and traditional Western interpreters, therefore, are correct to depict the forgiveness of sins as the remedy for consciences troubled by sin (the apostle John certainly does in 1 John 1:5-2:2); they are not always correct in locating the biblical basis for this depiction. Stendhal is largely on track when he accuses Western interpreters of losing sight of Paul’s chief polemic regarding the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in their quest to find timeless truths about the law, sin, repentance and forgiveness.

A Response to “Not the New Perspective”

by Kevin Bywater

Professor Francis Watson (currently at the University of Aberdeen) has migrated from being a rather energetic, if a bit eccentric, proponent of “the new perspective on Paul” to being a vocal and determined critic of the same. Though he recognizes that the Christian caricature of Judaism in days past is something that needed to be put to rest (an accomplishment he attributes, in part, to the work of E.P. Sanders), in his article Not the New Perspective he argues that such a project need not bring an end to the gospel-law antithesis — an antithesis Watson sees as shared by the Reformation heritage and the apostle Paul himself.

In some ways, Watson’s online critique is a healthy reminder of what we can and cannot expect of ourselves. While we may seek complete objectivity in our exegesis of Paul, such objectivity is an ideal, something not easily accomplished, and something not likely achieved through our own efforts; hence the need for regular consideration of the proposals of others. Watson concludes his essay with these words:

After every allowance has been made for its [the new perspective’s] genuine and valuable insights, the verdict must be a negative one. By imposing its own pseudo-theological agenda on the Pauline texts, the new perspective has hindered our access to Paul’s own theology — that is, to his complex elaboration of the gospel’s simple announcement that, in raising Jesus from the dead, God has acted definitively and unconditionally for the salvation of humankind, as the law and the prophets bear witness.

Watson does put his finger on the interpretive missteps of some advocates of the new perspective (see his “4. Critique (III): point 4”) when he notes the mantra-like appeal to Sanders’ work, as though Sanders was correct in any and all regards. Such appeals need to be mitigated by the texts themselves, as well as through the works of Sanders’ dialogue partners. Even Sanders acknowledged some diversity in the material he surveyed (though one may be forgiven for seeing Sanders as promoting his thesis at times without such qualifications being pronounced).

But Watson’s constructive proposals need a bit of assessment as well. Personally, while I have been uncomfortable with some of the proposals and readings put forth by Watson in his doctoral thesis, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles (Cambridge, 1986 — proposals put forth when he was a vigorous advocate of an eccentric version of the new perspective), I’m at least as uncomfortable with some of the proposals he now sets forth as foundational for how we might recapture Paul’s actual theology. For example, Watson writes:

Paul’s understanding of the law is an attempt to resolve a fundamental scriptural anomaly. On the one hand, God commits himself unconditionally to future saving action on behalf of Abraham and the world. On the other hand, the law sets the divine-human relationship on a different basis, in which divine saving action is conditional on prior human obedience to the commandments.

Is this really the way the law is presented in the Pentateuch (or anywhere else in the Scriptures)? I suspect that Watson has misunderstood the way of the Torah. For the simple fact that even the law of the covenant is prefaced with a proclamation that God is the Deliverer of his people, the one who rescued them from bondage, places the law’s commands and demands within the purview of Divine initiative and grace. On the other hand, while we may suppose that God’s promise to Abraham was “unconditional,” this is qualified by the fact that not only do we find post-Sinai reasons for upholding conditions (at least with regard to those who may enjoy the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant; cf., e.g., Deut. 27ff), we find such conditions explicit or implicit within the pre-Sinaitic Genesis narratives themselves (e.g., 17:1; 18:19; 22:18; 26:5).

Watson continues:

The one who does them shall live by them: that, in essence, is the law’s project. The entire book of Deuteronomy is the message of Leviticus 18.5 writ large. How may Genesis and Deuteronomy be reconciled? The answer, for Paul, is that the law itself declares that its own project is a dead-end. It teaches that the one who does these things will find life thereby, but it also teaches that this quest is doomed to failure, leading inevitably to the execution of the curse that the law itself proclaims against transgressors (Gal.3.10-11, cf. Rom.3.9-20, 7.7-12).

But this reading of Paul seems not to get to the heart of Paul’s project. By no means does Paul hold that all Israelites, throughout all generations, fell under the curse of the law due their disobedience. The examples of pre-Sinai Abraham (Rom. 4; Gen. 12-15) holds forth hope for subsequent generations of Israelites. Paul’s exemplary appeals to David (Rom. 4; Ps. 32), Elijah, and the 7,000 faithful in Elijah’s day (Rom. 11; 1 Kings 19), illustrate that God’s grace has been operative even in the lives of some who sought to express fidelity to the law’s commands. As Watson acknowledges, the “curse of the law” is something that the law “itself proclaims against transgressors.” But given what we’ve already noted, regarding those who exhibited fidelity to God in their faithfulness to his commands, it would be strange to read Paul as simply sweeping all pre-Christ Jews to the dustbin of “transgressors” — as though the fundamental distinction between the righteous and the wicked no longer played for Paul. What would that make of Abraham? What of Noah? And to speak to a post-Sinai context, what would that make of the likes of Joshua, Caleb, Phineas, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Zacharias and Elizabeth, Simeon, or John the Baptist? What I’m getting at is the fact that if we read Paul the way Watson does, I fear that we will be putting Paul in the precarious position of assigning to these faithful individuals condemnations quite contrary to the judgments put forth in the Scriptures themselves. Is Paul really an historical revisionist? Simply put, while Paul sees sin as a universal issue, he also testifies that God graciously has saved sinners in days gone by.

And certainly Watson would not be among those who suppose that it is in the seeking to obey that one’s fleshly “human agency” is quintessentially expressed. For the thought of passive or active lawlessness can in no way, at no time, be conflated with virtue and faith, neither in the Old Testament, the gospels, nor in the theology of Paul. For this would not be a solution to an alleged “Scriptural antinomy” but a blatant expression of unfaithfulness. It would reveal Paul as one who in seeking to solve an alleged “Scriptural antimony” was willing to revisit some of the judgments made by God himself. What a precarious project that would be. I cannot but doubt the hoped for success of Watson’s most recent reading of Paul.

Watson continues:

The law places responsibility for ultimate well-being in human hands, offering the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. But it also acknowledges that, through human sin, the inevitable outcome of its offer is not life or blessing but death and the curse. In that way, by acknowledging the failure of a project based on human agency, the law confirms the gospel’s announcement that God in Christ has taken the human cause entirely into his own hands. ‘Faith’ is the acknowledgment, elicited and enabled by the gospel, that all this is indeed the case.

It is strange that while Watson would seek to expose the theologically-invested exegesis of new perspective advocates, he himself tips his theological hand so much. For his theological abstraction regarding “human agency” reveals, I would suggest, something quite foreign to Paul’s project regarding the law and its relationship to faith. This can be seen in the way Paul himself continues to set forth “the choice of life or death, blessing or curse” in such passages as Romans 8. While Paul ascribes to God the way of salvation from sin and the flesh, and acknowledges that it is through God’s gift of his Spirit that one may be enabled to walk Divine paths, Paul himself also rings the tone of human responsibility (read, “human agency”) with regard to the follow-through. For even those invested with the Spirit are not passive with regards to their response of lives of faith, nor is the dichotomous threat of life and death no longer to ring in their ears. True faithfulness, given definition by the law, has always been embodied in those who place their hope in the Lord, trusting him for forgiveness and salvation.

It would seem that Watson’s overall reading of Paul fails to appreciate the full force of Paul’s ethical imperatives as they are applied to Christians, not to mention the attendant chorus of the threats of death, wrath, judgment and destruction (cf., e.g., 1 Cor. 10-11). In other words, if Paul found the promotion of “the choice of life and death” essential to the failed project of the law, it is awfully strange that he himself would propagate it within the gospel context. In other words, while Paul does indeed proclaim that the gospel accomplishes deliverance from the curse of the law, the curse of God remains a real threat upon any within the Christian community who would fail to abide by the ethics thereof (not to mention the fact that Paul’s ethical prohibitions of idolatry and immorality are the very prohibitions that hung over the heads of the Israelites in times past).

Watson continues:

What I am suggesting in these all too brief remarks is that the primary location of the antithesis of divine and human agency in Paul is his scriptural hermeneutic, his interpretation of scripture in the light of the gospel and of the gospel in the light of scripture. If so, then his own evangelical construal of scripture can be compared and contrasted with the readings of Jewish contemporaries or predecessors for whom the covenant established through Moses at Sinai remains normative and intact. Paul and his fellow-Jewish interpreters are all reading the same texts. They share a marked bias towards the Pentateuch, believing that it is in the writings of Moses that the fundamental dynamics of the scriptural revelation come to light, and that the role of the prophets is to repeat, confirm and amplify what has already been said through Moses. They believe that their message to their contemporaries is inseparable from their construal of the scriptural texts. Yet for Paul these texts attest a definitive, unconditional divine saving action, whose scope is universal and whose glory quite eclipses the glory that once irradiated Moses’ face. That is what differentiates him from his non-Christian contemporaries and predecessors, who all assume — in their different ways — that the law’s project remains intact, and that those who observe it will find it to be the divinely ordained way to life and salvation.

Again, Watson presumes that Paul’s problem with the law is located in the law’s demands. He construes this as promoting “human agency” as antecedent to salvation. Yet the law does no such thing, we’ve already noted. And while it may be the case that some of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries promoted such a false agenda, and while it also may be that Paul speaks to them in some regards, that does not seem to be Paul’s primary focus throughout his epistles. For, as already noted, Paul, no less than Moses, calls both for the necessity of human allegiance to God and his ways of deliverance, as well as for the human response of fidelity to God’s promotion of communal or social ethics. Even so, it is clear that Paul does hold that in his day the curse of the law has fallen uponIsrael, such that the way of escape is through the faithful realignment of the people toward allegiance to the Messiah rather then to the projects of the pre-Christ era’s older covenant. But this seems a very different agenda that the one ascribed to Paul by Watson. The simple fact that both Moses and Paul set forth ethical imperatives, and that with the attendant threats toward those who would live ungodly lives, should tell us that the contrast is not simply between Divine initiatory agency and human agency. Rather the latter’s quality of fidelity is determined, according to Paul, precisely with regard to one’s fidelity to Christ and his law. We can in no way regain access “to Paul’s own theology” by muting the significance of Pauline ethics and their attendant promises or threats. To do so would be to reduce Paul to something less than the full-orbed apostle of Christ he was enslaved to be.

In the end, while some of Watson’s notes of caution should be heard and heeded, and while I too believe that some of the proposals of the chief advocates of the new perspective (e.g., Sanders, Dunn, Wright) need to be revisited, I find that Watson’s presentation of his own project leaves me cold. I too desire to uncover and reclaim Paul’s real theology. But I refuse to believe that such an endeavor can be accomplished in any significant way if our theological convictions cause us to construct false dichotomies, or to reduce Paul’s convicting and consoling theological ethic to something less than it is in all its gospel glory.

Watson’s brief critical presentation is alleged to be a foretaste of a much larger discussion of Paul’s hermeneutics and theology, a discussion promising to be critically postured against ‘the new perspective.’ One can only hope (though it may be in vain) that in the larger work Watson retracts some of his most recent proposals.

All rights reserved by Kevin James Bywater. Published here with permission.

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