Jan 23, 2010

The "New Perspective" on Paul and the Law

10 Min Read

There is something of a small war going on in Pauline circles on the issue of "the New Perspective on Paul"which actually also involves "the New Perspective on Early Judaism". This sometimes heated debate was set in motion by the work of Ed Sanders beginning in 1977 with Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and followed in subsequent years by a series of equally influential studies such as Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, and Jesus and Judaism.[1] One of the great concerns or burdens of Sanders work was to demonstrate that the old, sometimes even anti-Semitic contrast between Christianity as a religion of grace and Judaism as a religion of works, including salvation by works, involves a caricature of early Judaism. He set in opposition to this notion the idea of covenantal nomism, that is that the obedience one reads about in the OT and early Jewish religion was not obedience in order to obtain right-standing with God, but obedience in response to the divine initiative which was prior. Sanders was particularly unhappy with older German Lutheran scholarship, that in his view perpetuated such stereotypes, and it was on the basis and back of his work that ‘the New Perspective on Paul’ was launched as well.

One of the flash points in the debate was of course Paul’s use of the phrase ‘works of the Law’. Did this refer to all works of the Mosaic Law, or was perhaps Paul only critiquing the ‘badges of membership’—circumcision, Sabbath keeping, ritual laws about food and the like, in his phrase ‘works of the Law’? Just how sectarian was Paul, and is it a caricature of Paul to suggest that he was an advocate of a new religion called Christianity? Does Paul presuppose or even indeed help precipitate the parting of the ways between Judaism and the Jesus movement, or did that transpire after Paul’s time? Was the debate between Paul and Judaism, like the debate between Paul and the Judaizers, purely an intramural debate, or not? No one has done more to further the new Perspective since Sanders than J.D.G. Dunn in a huge number of essays and studies, collected and edited in a new edition by Dunn himself.[2] It is fair to say that he is the strongest advocate of this viewpoint in its most thorough-going form.

With the rise of ‘the New Perspective on Paul’ came in due course the rebuttal to the new perspective, mainly by conservative Evangelical scholars of a quite Reformed point of view, in two studies titled Justification and Variegated Nomism.[3] In the first of these volumes they were able to demonstrate that indeed Sanders had overplayed his hand, that there was not some monolithic covenantal nomistic view in early Judaism that characterized all early Jews thinking about the Law. Using Sanders own language, Law-keeping was not just about staying in, in some cases it was also about getting in, in the first place. Not merely in 4 Ezra but also 2 Enoch it seems clear enough that we have what could be called a works righteousness based on law-keeping such that there is a post-mortem judgment based on the deeds done in this life—resulting in rewards and punishments.[4] Interestingly in Jubilees while ‘getting in’ may well be on the basis of election, staying in and final salvation is said to be on the basis of obedience to the Law.[5] In 2 Baruch God bestows mercy on those who keep the Law, the ones called the righteous. In these same sources when God’s righteousness is discussed it is not a cipher for God’s covenantal faithfulness, but rather has to do with his just judging or ruling.

Of more concern for our purposes is the fact that: 1) the material that Tom Wright has used to support his version of the New Perspective, including especially the idea that Israel saw itself as still in exile even after they returned to the Holy Land has been misconstrued.Ezra-Nehemiah is not about a belief that God’s people are still in exile but rather about disappointment that full restoration has not transpired and the post-Biblical sources Wright uses to support his argument reflect the post-70A.D. thinking of Jews, which cannot be said to be representative of the thinking of the era leading up to A.D. 70[6] and 2) Final judgment on the basis of works permeates large portions of the literature of early Judaism, even when ‘getting in’ is seen to be a matter of election or grace, or both; 3) what this same large corpus of literature, including the Qumran literature does indeed demonstrate is that initial entrance into and membership in the people of God, and final salvation are seen as distinguishable things by many of these writers, and furthermore when they speak about God’s righteousness or even human righteousness they do not tend to use the language in either forensic, or purely covenantal kinds of ways; most importantly, 4) in the second volume on Justification and Variegated Nomism, there is an extended demonstration that when Paul refers to ‘works of the Law’he refers to them all, including the ten commandments. In Paul’s letters, neither justification nor salvation is said to be contingent upon or requiring obedience to the Mosaic Law, whereas at least in regard to final salvation this is repeatedly the view found in early Jewish literature. What these essays however do not in fact demonstrate is that when Paul talks about salvation, even final salvation apart from works of the Law, Paul is not merely referring to Mosaic Law, but even to the Law of Christ as well. That is, Paul does think that keeping the Law of Christ has something to do with working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling. Paul is not an antinomian, and the only Law he is critiquing in the phrase ‘works of the Law’ is the Mosaic one.

Holding something of a mediating position on the ‘New Perspective’ is Francis Watson, who has continued to refine his insights on this matter and would like to get beyond the deadlock between the two schools of thought just mentioned.[7] On the one hand Watson wants to insist against some New Perspective proponents that Paul’s problem cannot be reduced to the fact that he objected to Judaism’s exclusive attitude towards Gentiles, in contrast to his own welcoming of Gentiles into the people of God. Furthermore, after having examined Phil. 3.4-6 Watson points out that there is no suggestion here that Saul the Pharisee believed that he had been saved by means of circumcision and so on the basis of the ‘covenant-making’ rather than on the basis of his own law-observance. “If ‘righteousness’ is a prerequisite for salvation, it is notable that Paul connects it not to his circumcision or membership of the people of Israel but to his own law-observance ‘…as regards righteousness under the law, blameless’ (v.6).This law-observance has its context and presupposition in the covenant, but it is the law observance and not the covenant per se that is said to constitute Paul’s righteousness.” Watson goes on to stress, having evaluated Rom. 9.4, 30-10.5 that in both these texts righteousness and indeed life, and so salvation, are correlated with law observance, though of course that observance is done within the context of the covenant. In short, in such reasoning salvation is not seen as a matter narrowly connected only to covenant and grace, and not to obedience and works of the Law. Indeed, it is more connected to the latter than the former.[8] And as we have seen from some of the texts from early Judaism, covenantal nomism hardly best sums up their view of the relationship of righteousness, salvation and the role works of the Law play in such matters.

Watson goes on to demonstrate at some length that by the term ‘works’ Paul simply means works of the Mosaic law, and that both the term ‘works’ which really only occurs in Romans and more expansively ‘works of the Law’ Paul does not merely mean a limited number of covenantal practices such as circumcision or Sabbath keeping, the so-called boundary markers or badges of membership. Further, Watson is able to show from a close reading of texts like Rom. 10.3 or Phil. 3.9 that when Paul contrasts ‘one’s own righteousness’ that comes from works of the Law with a righteousness that comes from Christ, there “is no indication that what he really means [by the former] is that righteousness is attained through membership of the covenant, and it is maintained and confirmed by law observance but not constituted by it.”[9] In short, there are severe problems with the analysis of Paul in the New Perspective, whether we are thinking of the analysis ofSanders, Dunn, or even Wright. Paul believed that works and obedience in Judaism indeed affected righteousness, life, and salvation, the question is whether he carried such a belief forward into his Christian faith. If the old caricature of Judaism as a graceless and legalistic religion is certainly false, the New Perspective does not seem to have adequately represented the way Paul contrasts what is true in Christ and what he believed was true under the Mosaic Law.

It is interesting to reflect for a moment on the contrast in Gal. 2.16. Here, we are told quite specifically that righteousness is obtained_not_ through works of the Law, but rather through ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’. Here a very strong case can be made that what Paul is doing is contrasting the work of Christ himself on the cross, dubbed in short form ‘the faith/faithfulness of Christ’ with human striving for righteousness through Law obedience. In other words, two objective means of obtaining righteousness are contrasted here, not the believer’s subjective faith in Christ as opposed to someone’s doing the works of the Law. The saving work of Christ on the cross made ‘works of the Law’ unnecessary and indeed obsolete as a means of righteousness or obtaining final salvation. It did not make obsolete or unnecessary the obedience that flows forth from Christian faith. A bit more needs to be said about Paul’s handling of the Law at this juncture as we prepare to dive into his ethicizing in more detail.

Gal. 3-4, despite evasions to the contrary, tells us that Paul saw the Mosaic Law as having a temporary function in the life of God’s people, a function that was completed when Christ came and fulfilled the Law, thereby bringing it to an end. This is why Paul uses the analogy between the slave guardian of a child, until he comes of age, and the Mosaic Law. Paul’s handling of the Mosaic Law is that it is a good thing, given to keep God’s people in line and alive until God sent forth his Son. What the Law could accomplish was telling God’s people what rectitude looked like. What the Law could not accomplish was enabling people to do it. Understanding the Law, in Paul’s thought world, is a matter of understanding where it comes in the story of God’s people, and what, or in this case who eclipses it, in that Grand Narrative. Did this view turn Paul into an anti-nomian? Well, no.

In fact Paul thinks that Law still plays an important part in the life of a follower of Christ, but it is a different Law, the Law of Christ which seems to involve the following components: 1) the imitation of Christ and his apostles; 2) the keeping of those commandments reiterated by Christ and his apostles from the past (e.g. some of the ten commandments); 3) the new imperatives urged by Christ and then his apostles. Paul’s answer to the question as to how Christ’s followers should live is not ‘adopt Christ’s interpretation of the Mosaic Law and follow it’ but rather ‘whilst walking in the Spirit, follow and be fashioned by the Law (or rule) of Christ’. Paul is happy to sum up the essence of this Law of Christ, for example in the form ‘bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Law of Christ’ (Gal. 6.2).

Frank Thielman is quite correct in his assessment that in Gal. 6.2 Paul is certainly not reaffirming some commandment of Moses, but rather speaks of a different law, the eschatological Law of Christ which is part and parcel of the new covenant, with Gal. 6.2 probably being a paraphrase of a saying of Jesus himself Thielman, focusing on Gal. 2.18, correctly points out that Paul speaks of being a transgressor of some Law if he withdraws from table fellowship with Gentiles! Now clearly, this cannot refer to transgressing the Mosaic Law which sets up such boundaries when it comes to eating with Gentiles in the first place. Thielman also rightly points to 1 Cor. 9.19-23 where Paul both distinguishes the Law of Christ from the Law of Moses, and then identifies the former with the Law of God.[10]

Paul is offering a new definition of sin and transgression for followers of Jesus, and it does not simply involve some subset of sins listed in the Law of Moses. There is a necessity of obedience to Christ involved in the new covenant, and as we have seen salvation is not just a matter of justification by grace through initial faith in and conversion to Christ for Paul. There is also the matter of final salvation, and on this score, obedience, normally, has something to do with this, such that Paul in Rom. 1 can talk about ‘the obedience of faith’, meaning the obedience that naturally follows from faith.[11]

This is why the stringent warnings we noted about those Christians who could be excluded from the Dominion of God at the end for persisting in a certain course of disobedience such that they could be characterized as adulterers, thieves and the like, must be taken absolutely seriously. Final salvation, while it cannot be said to be_caused_ by works of any Law in Paul’s thinking, can indeed be negatively affected in the end by persisting in sin such that a moral apostasy (or some other sort of apostasy) is committed, according to several key Pauline texts. All of this helps us to understand the ethical seriousness of Paul’s moral remarks and why he so often offers up such strong imperatives to his converts.

Used with permission. For more information about Dr. Ben Witherington please visit www.benwitherington.com or his blog at blog.beliefnet.com/bibleandculture.

[1] The first was originally published in London: SCM Press, 1977. The second is Minn. Fortress, 1983, and the last is Minn. Fortress, 1987.

[2] J.D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, rvsd. Ed.(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[3] eds. D.A. Carson et al.(Grand Rapids: Baker 2001 and 2004).

[4] See the article by R.B. Bauckham, on “Apocalypses” in Justification and Variegated Nomism Vol. One, pp. 135-187

[5] See the discussion by Carson in Vol. One pp. 545-46.

[6] See Carson, p. 546 and n. 158.

[7] See now Francis Watson, Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, (Edinburgh: T+T Clark, 2004), and more specifically, Paul, Judaism, and Gentiles. Beyond the New Perspective, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)

[8] The quotation is from his Theta Phi Lecture “Once Again: Beyond the ‘New Perspective on Paul” delivered at Asbury Theological SeminaryMarch 6, 2008, based on his recent book from Eerdmans.

[9] “Once Again: Beyond the New Perspective”.

[10] F. Thielman, Paul and the Law, (Downers Grive; IV Press, 1994).

[11] I say normally because of course a deathbed conversion to Christ does occasionally happen, and proves of course that salvation is of course a divine gift from God.