“Justification and Variegated Nomism”

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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5 Responses

  1. great topic. i think the most important place to start is with bultmann’s stuff on paul. bultmann tried to pry paul out of judaism and look at him totally hellenistically. that’s why sanders’s book “paul and palestinian judaism” took the field by storm. sanders took on some big names, esp. bultmann, and showed demonstrated that the “saved-by-works/legalistic judaism” was merely one stripe of it, probably the pharisaic variety (of which Paul was a former participant).

    anywho, i might suggest people read bultmann’s big book on paul (esp. since it’s available in english) and sanders’s book, which is a major critique and response. this would give people a huge foundation for hearing wright, piper, and others today. it especially exposes how narrow piper’s vision and scholarship is.

    good post

    • I don’t remember whether it is in the Introduction to Volume 1 or a later essay, but they do discuss Bultmann and the very “un-Jewish” direction Paul was being taken in NT scholarship prior to NPP.

  2. Let me start by saying that I haven’t read the volumes you are endorsing here, but only the works of Sanders and Wright on the NPP, and a decent chunk of the Piper/Wright debate on justification.

    I like the idea of Variegated Nomism, it seems to guard against reading one reductionistic answer back into first-century Judaism. That being said, I think the NPP does provide a possible backdrop to understand Paul, regardless of what every Jewish theologian thought. I don’t think it’s fair to assert that because there were a plurality of beliefs in Second Temple Judaism, the NPP must be off for offering one such view. Nor do I think that is what Carson and friends are suggesting. However, it is not much farther down the road you present for part 1. I think it’s important to remember that the NPP was, indeed, trying to correct the removal of Paul from a Jewish context while simultaneously recognizing that Paul would have been fairly unique from other Jewish thinkers of the time. He was developing some fairly innovative takes on the Jewish faith of the day.

    Second, I don’t think that Okham’s razor is the most reliable way of understanding the text of an Eastern thinker from over two thousand years ago. Perhaps, the translation between the drastically differing worldview — that we in the West take for granted with our silly Enlightenment ideals — will not appear to us as simple. It may require detailed, complex understandings. What Paul assumes as the basis of his epistemology was very likely nothing at all like our own. In that way, Okham’s razor may only allow us to shave away everything but our own presuppositions, biases, and assumptions about the nature of Paul’s Christianity.

    All of this brings me to a distinct, though related point. What is going on between Piper and Wright has almost nothing to do with the NPP and biblical interpretation. The NPP and the historical Paul are works of historical hermeneutics on an ancient text. The Piper/Wright debate for justification is a theological issue of the 21st century. While we rely on the same ancient texts, assuming that we can figure out what Paul was really like and what he really meant as a way to discern the “rightness” or “wrongness” of two people in a theological debate now is silly. Again, we are working against 2,000+ years of the development of thought, social construction, and drastic re-interpretation. While Piper and Wright may appear to be fighting for an ancient meaning with current implications, they are actually fighting for a modern meaning in a current situation. (Note: I’m not advocating that the text has no meaning, but rather that we bring to it an equal amount of subjective “meaning.)

    So in truth, Piper is arguing for a very Reformed (read, “five hundred-year-old) reading of Paul, not necessarily one that is entirely accurate to the authorial intent of a first-century diaspora Jewish Christian named Paul. Wright is arguing against the Reformed tradition, and suggesting that the atonement needs to be understood in bigger, more cosmic terms. Both of these agendas are based in the world that Piper and Wright live in today. Both use the text to justify their claims. But the point remains, both are looking for a meaningful theology for today.

    As a side note, I might suggest that Piper is actually arguing staunchly for the literalist authority of the Bible, though I’m sure his literalism could be easily challenged (is he a one-handed, one-eyed eunuch, for example?). Wright’s work on justification is struggling to deal with the rampant individualism in current, consumer-driven Christianity. I’m not sure that Wright is as concerned with upholding the literalism of Paul’s “metaphors” for justification.

    All of that to say, I’m not sure that looking at the “biblical” foundations of each man’s position will help in determining the validity of each man’s theological argument. Instead, we ought to look at what each theology creates and compare those results to the message of the gospel. After all, the gospel has been changing, enculturating, and adapting for the last two millennia. But I guess for some, the Reformers spoke the final word five hundred years ago despite their insistence on “always reforming.”

    • I think in your second paragraph, you pretty much describe the gist of Volume 1: covenantal nomism would be reductionistic towards the vast amounts of Second Temple Judaism literature (and what I would call the “man-on-the-street” viewpoints), but since it is indeed one of the views out there (which the authors are willing to acknowledge when it does surface), the question (handled in Volume 2) is whether or not Sander’s covenantal nomism best fits the views Paul is reacting against.

      I’m not saying that Ockham’s razor is the only evaluative tool we have, but when comparing one or more interpretations (done by Westerners) of an ancient text (whether it is Eastern or Western– though I think “Eastern” is far too broad a term to lump Judaism into), it can be useful.

      Regarding Wright and Piper, my main analogy of the buildings was simply to show that while many just like to hang out in the “modern issues” area of theology, it’s hard to understand or evaluate either without looking at what foundations are there. But (I might amend to my earlier analogy), I don’t think they are only two buildings to choose from.

      The issue of evaluating the results of theologies apart from looking at the Biblical foundations seems inherently problematic. The statement- “Instead, we ought to look at what each theology creates and compare those results to the message of the gospel.” is good, until one isn’t sure what the message of the gospel is, then such comparisons seem impossible.

      I do think (and the authors of these volumes largely agree) that the NPP has provided us with a helpful re-emphasis on the ethnic conflict within early Christianity and the role of the Gospel in the creation of a “new humanity.” The question seems to be one of over-reaction at some points, as the horizontal ethics in NPP at times strip the vertical, theological realities of Paul of their importance as well. I think both are absolutely essential.

  3. […] hindrance to justifiable living by means of promoting only a self-affirming kind of justification. A friend and I were recently discussing this idea. I said, “we ought to look at what theology creates,” by which I meant that the value of […]

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