Covenantal Nomism in the New Perspective on Paul: Part 1

This series of posts will examine covenantal nomism in the New Perspective on Paul and then argue that the New Perspective undermines a correct understanding of the biblical doctrine of justification. The New Perspective on Paul is a new way of reading the Pauline writings of the New Testament. Proponents of this view assert that Pauline writings, most notably Romans and Galatians, have been misread since the time of the Reformers because they, and other Protestants since then, have misunderstood the Second Temple Judaism of Paul’s day.

The term “new perspective on Paul” was coined by James D.G. Dunn in a 1982 lecture and article entitled “The New Perspective on Paul.” However, the basic idea that drove this “new perspective” has its origins with a lecture Krister Stendahl gave in 1961 entitled, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.”

In 1977 E.P. Sanders wrote a seminal work entitled Paul and Palestinian Judaism in which he introduced a critical idea of covenantal nomism to New Perspective theology.The current champion and perhaps best known New Perspective scholar (especially among evangelicals) is N.T. Wright. Wright, who identifies as an Evangelical, has written extensively on the New Perspective within in the last 20 years.[1]

When speaking of the New Perspective on Paul, it is more correct to speak of the New Perspectives on Paul. There are various points of divergence and disagreement among advocates of the New Perspective. Theologian Francis Watson, who was once a proponent for the new perspective and later returned to the classical Protestant position, helpfully offers five basic tenets the various strains of the New Perspective on Paul have in Common.[2]

  1. The dominant Reformation and post-Reformation tradition of Pauline interpretation is wrong. Paul has been misread because first century Judaism has been misunderstood.
  2. The various diverse forms of Judaism practiced in the Christian era did not teach obedience to the law as a way of salvation.
  3. As a minority group among a dominant Hellenistic culture, the Jewish community was concerned above all else to preserve its cultural identity. Hence the significance of things like circumcision, ceremonial food laws, etc.
  4. The Judaism of Paul’s day believed in divine election and mercy. Therefore, Paul opposed the Judaizers not because they were teaching salvation by works, but because they were creating external boundary markers excluding Gentiles from God’s covenant people.
  5. Reformation and post-Reformation interpreters have not fully appreciated the context of Pauline passages on justification in their interpretation. Biblical interpreters continue to misread the biblical texts by anachronistically imposing on them their own theological presuppositions.

This essay will confine itself to examining and offering a critique of the idea that the Second Temple Judaism with which Paul was interacting, most notably in Romans and Galatians, was not a religion that taught obedience to the law as a way of salvation.

This issue will be examined because it is the central pillar of the New Perspective on Paul. The entire system stands or falls on this issue.

Understanding and rightly evaluating the New Perspective is not a mere academic exercise. The implications of this teaching are profound in its effects on the doctrine of justification. For if the New Perspective is correct, justification is not a matter of how sinful people are saved and made right with a holy God. Instead, it is about who is in and who is out of the church.

The New Perspective position sees justification as a matter of ecclesiology, not a matter of soteriology.[3] This position undermines the very gospel itself.

By Justin Nash

(Justin Nash serves as Director of Church Health & Communications for the Advent Christian General Conference) 

References

[1] Ligon Duncan and Mark Dever, “Justification and the New Perspective with Ligon Duncan,” 9 Marks Leadership Interview and Seminar Series (MP3 podcasts), 9 Marks, 07,30, 2004, https://www.9marks.org/message/justification-new-perspective-ligon-duncan/

[2] Francis Watson, lecture notes “Not the New Perspective” at the British New Testament Conference, University of Aberdeen, September, 2001.

[3] Michael Horton, Justification: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 31.

One thought on “Covenantal Nomism in the New Perspective on Paul: Part 1

  1. Some advocates of the “new perspective” argue that Luther misinterpreted Paul by claiming that the Apostle focused on the moral law of God, as opposed to the ceremonial law. Hence, the Western Church’s understanding of justification is more “legal” than relational. In my understanding, Justification has both legal and relational dimensions, and the big problem in Western Christianity is the reduction of justification to almost entirely transactional. While there is a transactional element to justification to reduce it to that drives a wedge between justification and sanctification. In my view, a number of NT passages do not allow us to do that. If salvation is found in our declaration of allegiance to Jesus Christ (which I see as the best metaphor for salvation), our allegiance leads to what Paul describes in Romans 6 as our “union with Christ.” Moreover, John speaks in his gospel of Jesus and the Father as one. Hence, if salvation draws us into union with Christ and Christ is one with his Father, then the Christian life becomes us learning to participate in the divine Triune life of God.

    This idea is rooted deeply in early Christianity, in the New Testament and in church fathers like Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. It means that faith is the center of both our justification and our sanctification. Much of modern theology in both liberal and conservative circles has led us into a ditch, a ditch where we see salvation and the Christian life has separate entities rather than as a unified way that we follow Jesus.

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