Wednesday, January 30, 2008

NPP and Covenantal Nomism

By Ian Clarey @


For twenty or so years New Testament scholarship has been embroiled in a controversy over the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP).[1] Although James D. G. Dunn in his Manson Memorial Lecture at the University of Manchester coined the term in 1982, the essential thinking of the NPP stretches much farther back into history.[2] One could trace its steps back a hundred years to the writings of Albert Schweitzer where the seed that germinated and eventually grew into the NPP could be found.[3] However, the key players that properly developed the thinking of the NPP wrote more recently. In fact, some are still writing on this subject today. This paper will highlight a select number of New Testament theologians and provide a brief overview of their thought relative to the New Perspective on Paul. The “chosen few” are Krister Stendahl, Edward P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn and Nicholas Thomas Wright respectively. After summarizing the pertinent contribution of each of the men, a brief response to the common substance of their thought will collectively be provided.

Krister Stendahl
A key claim of the NPP is historical-theological. This may seem strange considering that the regular cast of characters involved in the NPP is comprised of New Testament scholars. However, when one considers the nature of Biblical interpretation and its relevance to the field of New Testament studies, historical considerations are in order. Therefore it is wholly appropriate that a man of Martin Luther’s stature and significance be evaluated. The view of the NPP respecting Luther has to do with the Wittenberg Reformer’s struggle against the medieval Roman church. It is their contention that Luther read this struggle with sin and his relationship to a holy God back into the New Testament, in particular into Paul’s struggle with the Judaism of his time. This apparent act of anachronism by Luther has led to a great number of misunderstandings concerning such soteriological categories as justification, righteousness, works of the law, imputation, etc. This has then led the NPP to reevaluate Paul contrary to Luther and his followers.[4]

Ironically no other scholar has influenced such a view of Luther than the Swedish Lutheran Krister Stendahl. In 1963 Stendahl published an essay in the Harvard Theological Review entitled “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in which he first argued that Augustine’s reading of Paul was impacted by his conversion experience in the infamous garden in Milan. The personal struggles felt by the bishop of Hippo not only then impacted Augustine’s understanding of Paul, but served to impact all of western Christianity that followed in the same manner.

Stendahl in turn argued that Luther’s misunderstanding of Paul was of Augustinian proportions. Like the namesake of his order, Luther the Black Augustinian, was deeply impacted by sin in his conversion experience. The result of his sensitivity regarding sin led Luther to a more individualistic understanding of salvation as per the Apostle Paul.[5] Stendahl contrasted the Reformer’s “introspective” conscience with the Apostle’s “robust” conscience and determined that the two did not match. Pre-conversion Luther had been obsessed with his sinful status before God and wrestled deep in his psyche over how he could be reconciled with his Creator. This then interfered with his exegesis of Paul and has tainted all exegesis following him.
The Apostle Paul, however, did not have such a struggle because he viewed himself as being already involved in a right relationship with God. Therefore, for any true interpretation to be had of Paul requires one to go over Luther’s head for a fresh picture. According to Stendahl, Paul’s central issue did not have to do with personal, individual sin; rather his primary concern was community relations. Specifically, Paul did not ask the question, “How am I right with God?” Instead, he asked two questions: “What happens to the Law when the Messiah has come?” and “What are the ramifications of the Messiah’s arrival for the relationship between Jews and Gentiles?”[6] Stendahl understands Paul to argue that the Law drove Jews to belief in the Messiah in order to show that Gentiles did not need to have the Law imposed upon them in order to be included in the people of God. The Gentiles have now become partakers of the promises given to Abraham, and this not through the Law but through faith.[7]
This argument of Stendahl’s, later developed in “Paul Among Jews and Gentiles,”[8] called for a reevaluation of Pauline theology in light of these two questions. Sin no longer should be seen as the driving issue for the Apostle, rather the important question was that of the role of the Law in Jew/Gentile relations. The centrality of these questions and their answers cut against the grain of all Reformational understandings of Paul. Stephen Westerholm summarizes Stendahl’s view well by saying, “For Stendahl, then, the ‘use’ of the law as ‘God’s mighty hammer’ bringing complacent sinners to despair has little support in Paul. The roots of the notion are rather in problems peculiar to the modern West. Hence the function and indeed the definition of the law need reexamination.”[9]

E.P. Sanders
Although Stendahl’s work on Luther’s “introspective conscience” was a watershed in recent New Testament studies, E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism[10] was an atomic bomb. Since the publication of this work in 1977, Biblical studies relating to Judaism, Paul and justification have not been the same. No respected scholar studying any of these subjects would neglect interaction with Sanders’ seminal work.[11]

Working along similar lines as Stendahl, Sanders believed that all New Testament scholarship influenced by Luther had misread Paul. More than that, they had misread Judaism. One of the significant aspects of Sanders’ work is that he brought primary Jewish sources to the fore in New Testament studies; sources that had long been relegated to quotations from secondary literature. By interacting with the Jewish writings directly, Sanders brought about a methodological revolution.[12]

When evaluating the Judaism of the Second Temple period, Sanders did not believe that a systematic theology of Jewish beliefs was to be found. Instead, he sought to determine a “pattern of religion” that gave a general characterization of Judaism spanning the years of 200 BC to 200 AD. Sanders’ main concern when considering this pattern involved two questions. The first, how did one enter the religious community and the second, how did one remain within that community. To quote Sanders himself, “A pattern of religion defined positively, is the description of how a religion is perceived by its adherents to function – how getting in and staying in are understood.”[13] Although there are soteriological elements to Sanders’ questions, they are primarily sociological in that they are primarily concerned with the nature of the covenant community.

Sanders found the answer to these questions in a pattern of religion that he has termed “covenantal nomism.” It is this pattern that has dominated NPP literature, and functioned as the foundation for its adherents. Sanders summarizes covenantal nomism in eight points.
The “pattern” or “structure” of covenantal nomism is this (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.[14]

Thus, for Sanders, according to the literature of Second Temple Judaism, covenantal nomism was the normal pattern of religion. What this meant for Sanders, and for adherents of the NPP, was that the Jews of both Jesus’ and Paul’s day looked quite different than the Jews of Lutheran interpretation. These were not Jews who were concerned with performing meritorious works to gain entrance into the people of God. Rather, as members of the covenant people, and that by grace, they were only concerned with maintaining covenant status. The significance of this for understanding Paul’s arguments with the Jews could not be overstated. The Jews of Paul’s day were not legalists who tried to merit favour with God by works righteousness; instead they had a well-developed theology of election and grace. If Paul had no reason to challenge them on the issue of works, his arguments must have been involved with an entirely different set of concerns. These concerns did not require Paul to discard his Judaism so much as it required him to renovate it. According to Sanders, Paul was still a covenantal nomist, though in modified form; for Paul, the conditions of entry into and maintenance within the covenant were different. Entrance into the covenant required baptism and maintaining covenant status required obedience to the laws of the new covenant.[15] Therefore, Paul’s problems with the Jews did not have to do with them earning salvation by works, rather, their problem was that Judaism was not Christianity.[16]

For the sake of space, only covenantal nomism has been considered here. Sanders has a greater and more complex understanding of Paul and Palestinian Judaism that cannot be evaluated in so short an essay. Briefly, these include the question of whether Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, or whether he merely received his call as the Apostle to the Gentiles; the nature of obedience within the covenant community as participationist – the “in Christ” motif; the question of whether one should argue from plight to solution or solution to plight when considering Paul; and a number of other issues. All of the above are intertwined within Sanders’ thought to provide a more holist support system for Sanders’ primary argument.

With all of this considered, the implications for Pauline studies are large. No longer are students of Paul to understand his arguments against the Jews as involving legalistic categories. Instead, words like “justification,” “works of the law,” and “righteousness” are to have sociological definitions. The Jews are not to be seen as legalists and Paul’s terminology in arguing against them are not to be understood forensically. A brief example would be the word “justification” that had traditionally been interpreted within the sphere of the law-court analogy. Now, in Sanders’ understanding, justification is about one’s status as being a member of the covenant people, not that one is declared morally righteous before God. This has had drastic consequences for how justification is now to be understood.

Sanders’ work laid the foundation for subsequent thought that has become known as the New Perspective. Any scholar who seeks to deal with the challenges brought forth by the NPP must deal with covenantal nomism and its implications. This can be done either positively in agreement with Sanders, or negatively in disagreement with him.[17] But in both cases, one still has to pay him strict attention.

James D. G. Dunn
One New Testament scholar who has paid strict attention to and has gleaned much from Sanders’ work is James D. G. Dunn, one-time Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham. As mentioned earlier, it was Dunn who had in fact coined the phrase the “new perspective on Paul.” This was said in light of the changes evident in New Testament scholarship since Sanders’ advocating of Jewish covenantal nomism. Although Dunn has contributed much towards the vast field of writings on the NPP, it is this essay that will briefly be explained.
Taking his cue from Stendahl and Sanders, Dunn argues that the traditional understanding of the Jews of Paul’s time is sorely lacking.[18] Agreeing with the moniker “covenantal nomism” for Second Temple Judaism, Dunn argues that the standard Lutheran hermeneutic has placed an improper grid upon Paul and has maintained a caricature of Judaism that has fed Christian anti-Semitism.[19]

Although Dunn is in substantive agreement with Sanders on the issue of covenantal nomism, he may perhaps be described as a “dissenting disciple.” Dunn believed that Sanders was essentially correct in his formulations, but that the latter did not follow through this insight with adequate consistency.[20] Contrary to what he perceived Sanders to be saying, Dunn does not believe that Paul’s switch from Jewish to Christian covenantal nomism was random or arbitrary.[21] Instead, Dunn saw Paul challenging those exclusivist Jews who identified themselves against the Gentiles by such boundary markers as food laws, circumcision and Sabbath.[22] These boundary markers are what are to be understood when Paul speaks of “works of the law.”[23]

Traditionally such works were understood as being meritorious in an attempt to attain favour with God. But according to Dunn, these works had nothing to do with getting into a relationship with God. Rather, Jewish Christians were wrongly maintaining their Jewish identity instead of being one in Christ with Gentile Christians.
As with Stendahl and Sanders before him, Dunn’s thought has transformed the soteriological terminology that had been traditionally used to explain Pauline theology. Now, instead of the forensic categories of a “Lutheran” reading of Paul, words like justification, righteousness, etc., have taken on sociological connotations.[24] Alongside his predecessors, Dunn’s writings have resulted in a drastic re-reading of Paul and a reworking of the face of Biblical soteriology.

N. T. Wright
The final figure to look at in this summary of key New Perspective theologians is N. T. Wright, now Bishop of Durham. Out of all of the authors involved one way or another with the NPP, Wright is likely the most well known. He writes not only at an academic level, but has been greatly concerned with distilling theology into more popular forms for the average church-goer. Therefore, Wright’s understanding of justification as it relates to the NPP has found itself in the hands of more than just New Testament scholars. He thus cuts a wide path.
Probably the best place to obtain a satisfactory view of Wright’s teaching on justification is his popular level book What Saint Paul Really Said.[25] Wright, like Dunn, is in essential agreement with Sanders’ discovery of covenantal nomism within Palestinian Judaism. Also like Dunn, Wright has certain criticisms of Sanders, in particular the bishop does believe that justification language in Paul is drawn from law-court analogies and retains a specifically forensic definition.[26]

But Wright also assumes the veracity of much of what Sanders has argued. He believes, like Stendahl, that later Protestant orthodoxy misunderstood the essence of Paul’s gospel. Wright says, “It is not, then, a system of how people get saved.”[27] For Paul, according to Wright, the gospel is only a proclamation of “Jesus is Lord.” Gaffin summarizes: “This gospel proclamation…has four basic components: the death of Jesus, his resurrection, the crucified and risen Jesus as Israel’s Messiah/king, Jesus as Lord of the entire world.”[28] As Gaffin further comments, “Wright is emphatic that Jesus is Lord, but much less clear about how he is Savior.”[29]

Wright has, in many respects, continued the transformation in New Testament studies initially wrought by Sanders. The force with which he has redefined certain key soteriological phrases has accomplished this change. For instance, “righteousness of God” for Wright does not refer to the right standing of a believer upon being declared just before the site of God in justification. Instead, “righteousness of God” speaks of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. According to Wright, “God’s righteousness…is that aspect of God’s character because of which he saves Israel, despite Israel’s perversity and lostness.”[30] Because righteousness is not about the believer’s status, rather God’s, and because Wright sees it as a forensic term drawn from the Jewish law-court, traditional conceptions of imputation are precluded. In what is likely his most famous statement regarding imputation Wright says,
If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom…To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a category mistake.[31]

When one considers the weight that confessional theology has placed upon the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer, it is easy to see why many have been critical of Wright on this point.

There is much more that could be said of the theology of one so prolific as Wright. His views on justification alone, not including writings on the historical Jesus, Palestinian Judaism, New Testament interpretation, etc., are enough to fill entire monographs. Suffice it to say, in summary, Wright follows the same essential train of thought as Stendahl, Sanders and Dunn in terms of articulating a theology that strips Paul of his Reformation interpreters and sets him within the historical confines of his period without any later prejudice.

Concluding Response
A brief response to some of the common thoughts espoused by the men surveyed above is in order. Recognizing space constraints, only one or two points can be made, although much more could be said.

The obvious place to start is Sanders’ assertion that Palestinian Judaism is marked by a pattern of religion known as “covenantal nomism.” Because this is the hallmark of Sanders’ overall argument, and because it is a theme picked up by Dunn and Wright, if one were to show that covenantal nomism was not the only pattern of religion for the Jews of this period, much of the NPP’s bite would be rendered toothless. Probably the key critique of covenantal nomism has come from the first volume of collected writings called Justification and Variegated Nomism.[32] Itself a massive tome, one would do well to at least consult D. A. Carson’s introduction and conclusion to catch the drift of their essential argument.

What this volume has shown is that Sanders’ appraisal of covenantal nomism is reductionistic at best. The work of these scholars has shown a great diversity in opinion amongst the Jews of Paul’s day that go beyond merely covenantal nomism, although there are aspects of it in much of the Jewish writings. Carson’s concluding chapter summarizes the work by evaluating each essay highlighting the common conclusion that the Second Temple literature was diverse in nature. To quote Carson’s final paragraph,

Examination of Sanders’s covenantal nomism leads one to the conclusion that the New Testament documents, not least Paul, must not be read against this reconstructed background – or, at least, must not be read exclusively against this background. It is too doctrinaire, too unsupported by the sources themselves, too reductionistic, too monopolistic. The danger is that of the “parallelomania”…by which texts are domesticated as they are held hostage to the ostensible background called forth by appealing to certain other antecedent texts.[33]

In other words, although there is an element of truth to the existence of covenantal nomism during this period, it is not the only pattern of religion. One must evaluate all of the evidence, not just a selection, to determine what and who Paul was combating when he spoke of justification not being by works of law, etc.

The New Perspective on Paul has provided New Testament theologians much food for thought. Not all that its proponents have said is necessarily bad, in fact, some of their writings prove intellectually stimulating. However, that being said, certain of the NPP’s main emphases are wrongheaded and damaging. In particular the denial of key aspects of Paul’s doctrine of justification because of selective readings from the Second Temple period are especially bad. It is hoped by this author that the rise of the NPP has resulted in a positive aspect of Christian theology: that of theological development. Wherever there is error in the church, those corrective steps taken have been fruitful for the overall flavour of theology. May the positive contributions of New Perspective writers and their critics be to the glory of God and for the benefit of the church.

[1] In recognition of the diversity of opinion among scholars, it is better to think in terms of the New Perspectives on Paul. However, due to common parlance, the singular will be maintained.
[2] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 183-214.
[3] For instance Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle trans. William Montgomery (New York: Holt, 1931).
[4] For more on the relation of Martin Luther to the NPP see Timothy George, “Modernizing Luther, Domesticating Paul: Another Perspective” in D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien and Mark A. Seifrid eds., Justification and Variegated Nomism Volume 2: The Paradoxes of Paul (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 437-463.
[5] Now as Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1976), 78-96.
[6] Stendahl, “Apostle Paul,” 84.
[7] Stendahl, “Apostle Paul,” 86.
[8] Krister Stendahl, “Paul Among Jews and Gentiles” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 1-77.
[9] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 149.
[10] E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
[11] Save for the notable Jesuit scholar Joseph Fitzmyer in his commentary on Romans.
[12] Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2004), 36.
[13] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 17 (emphasis his).
[14] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 16.
[15] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 513.
[16] On this see Waters, Justification, 88.
[17] An example of recent scholarship that highlights both agreement and disagreement with Sanders is D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien and Mark Seifrid eds., Justification and Variegated Nomism Volume 1: The Complexities of Palestinian Judaism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).
[18] Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law, 185.
[19] Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law, 61.
[20] Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law, 188.
[21] Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law, 188.
[22] Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law, 191-193.
[23] Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law, 191-202.
[24] For a summary of Dunn’s usage of such terminology in his larger body of writings see Waters, Justification, 98-109.
[25] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997).
[26] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 97.
[27] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 45.
[28] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Paul the Theologian: Review Essay” in Westminster Theological Journal 62 (2000): 124.
[29] Gaffin, “Paul the Theologian,” 125.
[30] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 96.
[31] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 98.
[32] See footnote 17 above.
[33] D. A. Carson, “Summaries and Conclusions” in Justification and Variegated Nomism Volume 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 548.

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