Over the past three decades, something called “The New Perspective on Paul” (NPP from here) has taken much of the world of New Testament studies by storm. Or at least so it seems. The work of men like E.P. Sanders, James G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright has caused many to re-examine commonly held perceptions of Paul and his theology, especially in the doctrinal area of “justification.” Their work, though branching in some different ways, has caused whole new debates over terms like “covenantal nomism”, “getting in versus staying in vs. being in”, and “present/future justification.” Most popular interaction with NPP has occurred in the last few years with the publishing of John Piper’s personal response to the views of N.T. Wright on the issue of justification and Wright’s recent monograph on that same topic. While I haven’t read all of either Piper or Wright’s works on the topic (though through various interviews online, I’ve heard each man give the gist of his view and his perception of the other), I think that to focus on the debate where they are at would be a mistake. To use a terrible metaphor, Piper and Wright are launching water balloons from the rooftop of two nearby skyscrapers. Rather than deciding which man has the better balloons and better aim, it might be smart to start at ground level and see which skyscraper has a good foundation.
For that, I believe a helpful resource for those who can handle a book with footnotes, is the two-volume work Justification and Variegated Nomism, edited by DA Carson, Peter O’Brien, and Mark Seifrid. Volume 1 and Volume 2 were published in 2001 and 2004 respectively. In essence, the works aim to evaluate the claims of the NPP from the foundation up. So Volume 1 focuses on the complexities of Second Temple Judaism, while Volume 2 then helps shed light on Paul’s work and view of justification in light of the discoveries made in Volume 1.
To note, this review won’t be very in-depth or academic. For one thing, I had to return the books to the library and so I’m pulling everything from memory.
Volume 1 essentially walks through various texts of Second Temple Judaism and evaluates them in light of the “covenantal nomism” that E.P. Sanders claimed was the real view of the Jews in Paul’s day. For those with limited time, editor Carson writes an excellent summary chapter at the end of Volume 1, providing summaries of the salient points of each preceding essay. (I would work backward from there as you find interesting material to investigate.) Essentially, in summary of Volume 1, the covenantal nomism of Sanders is sometimes found in the Judaism of Paul’s day and the scholars are happy to acknowledge such. However, the full counsel of texts written at that time show that it was not the only or even the majority view. Other views of election and grace and covenant membership were also popular as well. Sinlessness was thought achievable by some. Others clearly believed in merit-earning righteous acts. The most indicting evidence against the NPP’s use of Sanders’ covenantal nomism is the Old Testament word studies done by Mark Seifrid attempting to establish the relationship between the term/concept of “righteousness” and those of “covenant faithfulness.” Essentially, the massive work done revealed very few connections and no equations of “righteousness” with “covenant faithfulness.” Being faithful to the covenant is an element of righteousness, but the converse is not also true. Righteousness language primarily goes beyond covenantal ideas to creation ideas–namely the way God rules and structures the universe. This point seems especially important in the Wright/Piper debate as Wright’s view on justification rests on a foundation that “righteousness”=”covenant faithfulness.” The other texts don’t seem to agree. (I do think Piper is also mistaken here as he pulls “righteousness” too far from “covenant faithfulness” and beyond the creation themes. From what I understand, he argues that righteousness is the inherent moral character of God, which seems to be more metaphysical than the usage in either Biblical testament.) Hence, the varieties of law-keeping in Second Temple Judaism is the origin of the volumes’ title “Variegated Nomism.” I would also add that like many religions, we may also add that the “man on the street” theology was even more variegated than the writings themselves show. I think that has always been a flaw with the NPP is that they assume Paul was only interacting with the kinds of Jews who wrote the source material reflecting covenantal nomism, rather than his average “fellow-kinsman” on the street.”
In volume 2, the focus shifts from the foundation issue of what kind of Judaism is Paul and his cohorts reacting against, to what is Paul’s reaction. Since this NPP debate largely centers around the topic of Justification, the primary areas of study in Volume 2 are Romans, Galatians, and Paul himself. (Though historical theologian Timothy George adds a nice piece about the way Luther gets abused and misunderstood as well.) Peter O’Brien has two articles worth reading along the lines of “Was Paul a Covental Nomist” and “Was Paul Converted?” Moises Silva’s article on the issue of “Faith(fulness) of Jesus” in Galatians is superb on that issue. Essentially, here, I think, is where the NPP faces the toughest challenge. Most of the NPP readings of texts in Romans and Galatians (not to mention Philippians 3 and 2 Corinthians 5) place a more difficult grid of interpretation over these letters. I’m a huge fan of Ockham’s razor. The simplest explanation that accounts for all the data wins. The essays dealing with Sanders, Dunn, and Wright in Romans do a good job of showing how muddled and difficult the NPP wants to make some rather simple texts at times. (The writers have also done a good job of not always lumping various NPP authors together, but acknowledge the “variegation” of the NPP as they deal with various views.) Paul wasn’t writing to people trained in higher criticism who had read all the stuff even the authors in this volume had. Often, he uses simple language and style with lots of word pictures to teach theology to largely illiterate Christians. Often his attempts to be simple is what leaves us scratching our heads because we wished he’d have explained a little more detail in certain spots. (Romans 9-11 for sure!)
I’m trying to remember if I’ve left out anything particularly striking, but I can’t. Maybe some kind patron will endow me to read more in these areas.
So for those interested in the issues raised by the NPP and especially in the debates over justification, I do recommend these two volumes of Justification and Variegated Nomism for you on your quest. Even fans of the NPP will find good thoughtful responses throughout to questions raised by the NPP, and hopefully they will expand their definition of what Second Temple Judaism entails on the basis of Volume 1’s findings. If nothing else, the footnotes alone can direct one to countless primary and secondary sources on issues of Pauline theology and Biblical studies.
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