Covenantal Nomism in the New Perspective on Paul: Part 3

This is the third post in the series “Covenantal Nomism in the New Perspective on Paul.” To read the first post, click here.

Critique of the New Perspective

The New Perspective’s interpretation of Second Temple Judaism is wrong. They have painted too rosy a picture of Rabbinic Judaism. If the New Perspective is correct, then Paul had no real quarrel with Judaism as conceived and practiced in his day.

Paul did not “convert” to Christianity; rather he responded to a call to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.[1] As a result, Paul’s primary concern in his exposition of “justification by faith” was to address the issue of Jew-Gentile relations, not the universal problem of human sin. Therefore, Paul’s arguments against “works of the law” do not concern the issue of righteousness gained by obedience to the law, but rather the use of certain observances of the law that unfairly distinguished Jews from Gentiles.[2]

Donald Hagner presents four significant difficulties with the covenantal nomism of Sanders.[3]

  1. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know to what extent the rabbinic literature reflects the thinking of first century Judaism.

D.A. Carson observes that covenantal nomism is a gross oversimplification. Some portions of the literature can be described under this category. However, Second Temple Judaism was too diverse to subsume under one label.[4]

  1. There is, in the rabbinic literature, both a lack of systematic thinking and the presence of contradictory opinions.

Rather than being a monolith of covenantal nomism, it is best to view Second Temple Judaism as variegated nomism, being comprised of various views of law (nomos) to justification (being declared righteous before God).[5]

Hagner cites Friedreich Avemarie as having demonstrated “the rabbinic soteriology contains two different – indeed, contradictory – models one based on the election of Israel, the other on the deeds of the individual.” The strength of these positions within Judaism meant that one did not seem to have a priority over the other.[6]

  1. While the rabbinic literature does speak of God’s grace and mercy, it also contains a number of legalistic sounding statements.

The New Perspective advocates, chiefly Sanders, seems to be very dismissive of many of these statements that don’t support his conclusion, if acknowledging them at all. Sanders relies heavily on four main biblical sources to prove covenantal nomism: the Apocrypha, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Rabbinic tractate literature.

Robert Cara has conclusively shown that all of these documents have a works righteousness soteriology, whether Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. That’s not to say that all documents of Second Temple Judaism had a works righteousness soteriology, but many did. If this is true, then Sanders’ conclusion that works righteousness did not exist in Second Temple Judaism is wrong.[7]

  1. The “nomism” in covenantal nomism still creates a focus on obeying the law as a means of salvation.

Sanders makes the argument that people “get in” by grace, but “stay in” by obedience to the law.[8] This creates, at best, a semi-Pelagianism in which members of the covenant community are responsible for maintaining their position in the covenant based on their good works. By including obedience, Sanders includes an aspect of legalistic self-righteousness.[9]

One error of the New Perspective is that it mistakes the semi-Pelagianism of Second Temple Judaism for Pelagianism.[10] While there were fully Pelagian versions of soteriology in Second Temple Judaism, it was the syncretic semi-Pelagian sort that Paul was opposing in Galatians.

One final problem for the New Perspective are Pauline passages that unquestionably contrast a works righteousness soteriology with God’s saving activity. These passages are Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:4-7 and 2 Timothy 1:8-10.

Robert Cara gives a thorough exegesis of these texts [11] and responds to three advocates (Sanders, Dunn, and Wright) of the New Perspective where they have interpreted these texts in light of their position.[12] Cara, concludes that “works” in these passages are to be taken as works righteousness soteriology, and “works” in all three of these texts refer to broad human effort that would be in conformity to God’s moral law.[13] If one affirms Pauline authorship of these letters (Pauline authorship of Romans, Galatians, Philippians is largely undisputed) it is not exegetically viable to conclude that these texts do refer to works righteousness and also conclude that Romans, Galatians, and Philippians do not.

However, even if Pauline authorship of Ephesians, 2 Timothy, and Titus is denied,[14] there is still a major problem for the New Perspective. Even advocates of the New Perspective concede that these passages are arguing against a salvation-by-works perspective.[15] So, at the very least, these verses contradict a monolithic covenantal nomism by demonstrating that works righteousness did exist in Second Temple Judaism and Christian church contexts.[16] This puts a significant crack in the cornerstone of the New Perspective on Paul.

For most of the last 500 years, the Protestant church has seen the doctrine of justification answering the question, “How can a sinful human be made right with a holy God?” Therefore, the doctrine of justification is at the very heart of the gospel itself. The position of the Reformers, and all Evangelical Christians until today, is that justification is soteriological in nature. It defines “that thing on account of which we may be acquitted before a holy God and be reckoned a righteous person.”[17]

The historic Protestant position is that justification is a forensic declaration based on imputed righteousness of Christ appropriated by the believer solely on the basis of faith. Sinners are declared righteous before God, and restored to a right relationship with God because of the perfect obedience on Christ imputed to their account solely on the basis of faith in Christ and His redeeming work. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.

Perhaps the most significant issue affected by the New Perspective is the doctrine of justification. Covenantal nomism leads to a massive contextual shift in understanding Paul’s letters, especially Romans and Galatians. The Reformers read Galatians as Paul opposing legalism as a means of meriting salvation. It wasn’t a Pelagian, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, kind of works righteousness. Rather, it was a faith-plus-works system of salvation. If that is the correct understanding of Paul’s opponents, then his talk of justification in Galatians (Galatians 2:15-17; 3:11, 24; 5:4) was clearly soteriological in nature. If, however, Paul was opposing covenantal nomism, then justification takes on a different meaning. It ceases to be soteriological and becomes ecclesiological in nature. As N.T. Wright says,

“… to be justified here does not mean to be granted free forgiveness of your sin sins,” or “to come into a right relation with God.” Rather, it means, “to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family.”[18]

Wright further contends that dikaiosynē (righteousness) does not denote a moral quality It means membership in God’s true family. He therefore interprets dikaioō (justified) to mean the verdict of God Himself as to who really is a member of His people.[19]

There are a least two problems with Wright’s view.

  1. The soteriological character of justification is supported by the frequent Pauline claim that we are righteous or justified by faith (Romans 3:22, 26, 28, 30; 5:1;9:30; 10:6; Galatians 2:16; 3:8, 11, 24; Philippians 3:9).

Paul further teaches that we are not justified by works of the law (Romans 3:20, 21, 28; 4:6, 13; 9:31; 10:3-5; Galatians 2:16, 21; 3:11, 21; 5:4; Philippians 3:6). The point here is that Paul explains how one is not made right with God – by the means of work or the law. The context in which justification appears is often linked with other soteriological terms and expressions that focus on the saving work of Christ. Concepts like delivery from slavery to sin, forgiveness, and redemption often appear in the Pauline corpus along with justification.[20]

2. Wright creates a false dichotomy between the ecclesiological and soteriological natures of justification.

For instance, there are certainly ecclesiological issues in Galatians 2:11-21. This was a matter of knowing with whom believers could share table fellowship. However, it is more fundamentally a soteriological issue because justification wasn’t just about who was a true part of God’s people, but rather how someone became a part of God’s true people. The false teachers in Galatia maintained that circumcision was necessary to enter into the people of God. This was Paul’s primary concern. So the soteriological and ecclesiological natures of justification need not be mutually exclusive as Wright makes them.[21]

By Justin Nash

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


[1] Douglas C. Bozung, “The New Perspective on Paul: A Survey and Critique Part I”, (2017), 1.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, “Paul and Judaism: Testing the New Perspective,” in Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 78–83.

[3] Ibid, 85.

[4] D.A. Carson “Introduction”, in Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, (Grand Rapids, MI, 2004), 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hagner, 86.

[7] Robert J. Cara, Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology, (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications Ltd., 2017), 77-125.

[8] Douglas C. Bozung, “The New Perspective on Paul: A Survey and Critique: Part 2”, The Journal of Ministry and Theology: Spring (2006), 24.

[9] Cara, 66.

[10] “The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul,” Ligon Duncan,

[11] Cara, 148-169.

[12] Ibid, 169-192.

[13] Ibid, 169.

[14] Sanders and Dunn deny Pauline authorship of Ephesians, 2 Timothy, and Titus. Wright, however, affirms Pauline authorship.

[15] “The Achilles Heel of the New Perspective on Paul,” Michael J. Kruger,

[16] Cara, 202.

[17] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (trans. George Musgrave Giger; ed. James T. Dennison Jr.; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1994), 640.

[18] N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 116.

[19] Ibid, 121.

[20] Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 246-247.

[21]Ibid, 248-249.

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