Saturday, December 3, 2005

The Skewed Perspective?

If you're a theology nut, or at least you pretend to be one (like me), you may have run across something known as The New Perspective on Paul. Its proponents (E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, Don Garlington, N. T. Wright, Gordon Fee) aim to restore Pauline theology and his definition of the gospel back to its proper first-century Jewish roots. One's readings of his letters, chiefly Romans and Galatians, is altered greatly by it.

Basically, it all has to do with the function of the Law within God's community: Torah was never meant as a means of meriting God's favor, but as a way of showing that you are part of God's covenant community. This is consistent with the stipulations of the suzerain-vassal covenant form of the Mosaic Law, i.e., a king offers gracious benefits of protection and blessing upon a people, in exchange for which, they embrace their partnership in the covenant by adhereing to the king's resulting stipulations. Thus obeying the Law is not meant as a means of entering into the covenant, but rather serves as a means of identification with the God of the covenant in which you are included. This is defined by Sanders as "covenantal nomism."

Without laboring through all the details, the issue of concern in Paul's letter to the churches in Galatia becomes not one of the use of "works of the law" as a means of meriting righteousness before God (the traditional Reformation view). Rather the concern was the use of specific "works of the law" such as circumcision, New Moon observations, regulations concerning meat, etc. to define who was actually part of God's community as who was not. The Judaizers, then, were using the Law as a means of erecting borders between Gentile and Jew in God's community.

The NPP does a lot of good for several reasons: (1)Even today this crap goes on, bickering about who's in, who's not in on account of worship styles, liturgies (or lack thereof),
whether or not Christ's physical body and blood are present in the Eucharist, consumption of alcohol, giftings of the Spirit, etc. (2) We do need the greater emphasis on covenant inclusion used by NPP advocates. (3) We need to be reminded not to read our present experiences into Scripture, but instead interpret it within its historical context. So far, so good. Well, mostly.

But this New Perspective also, in its heart, entails that there may not be a truly fallen nature to mankind. This explains why Paul, although not denying his incompletion or imperfections, often displays a distinct air of confidence in his acceptance by God. NPP proponents claim that the Jewish/Scriptural idea of "the righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17 is his just declarations in saying who belongs, by faith, to his covenant community (cf. Psalm 50.6; 51;4). God's right declaration exists in his conferring citizenship upon those who by faith acknowledge the gospel of Christ's resurrection, reign, and rule as the new Lord and King of the world (see Romans 1:1-4). And in this King's cross, God has dealt with universal sin and makes forgiveness a reality. BUT it is not that the faithful are imputed with Christ's (that is, God's) own righteousness. They are merely cleared of sin's guilt and left with their life's covenant fidelity. And it is in this matter that I greatly digress for now.

I really don't know much about the NPP or the corpus of Pauline theology, but if the NPP is true, how do we make sense of such a statement as "Christ Jesus . . . became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, 'Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord'" (1 Cor 1:30-31)? If Christ's merit before God is not imputed to us through union with him by faith, how then can he become our righteousness? Or what about 2 Cor 5:21, which says that God made Christ "who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him"? If all of salvation-history balances upon Christ, how can we become God's righteousness" if no alien (external) righteousness is given to us? Or, what I see as the death blow to NPP righteousness, stands Romans 10.2-4: "For I testify about them [the Jews] that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end [telos: goal or fulfillment] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." Here there is a clear distinction between our own righteousness and that of Christ, who seems to fulfill the law's demands of Israel. His righteousness is then "[given] to everyone who believes." This indicates the imputation of an alien righteousness through faith, unless I'm totally misreading this.

These matters are tough for me, since I like to pretend I already know everything there is to know without carefully investigating all sides of the story. This gets even tougher when having lived now for a second year with advocates of some form of the NPP, and my propensity to bicker and demand that my ways are always right. When something comes along that fits a logical argument currently outside the boundaries of my knowledge or abilities to thoughtfully investigate, I either (a) waver and wonderwhat it is I really believe in the first place, or (b) get whiny and prideful and root down in the trenches of my Lutheran/Reformed understandings--which are neither inherently bad or good, but simply the conclusions to which my reading of God's Word has currently brought me. Peter writes that all of Paul's letters contain "some things hard to understand" (2 Pet 3.16). True.

At any rate, you probably think I'm nuts for caring about this stuff. But, trust me, it really does matter. If you've got an hour to give to this, please check out an informative page about NPP at There is also a tremendous amount of critical response to Wright posted at Cheers.


halfmom said...

I realize that I'm a bit simplistic in my viewpoints on theology - but it seems to me that their entire arguments negate Romans 3:20 - the pupose of the Law wasn't primarily to establish a relationship between God and His people - it was to reveal sin so we would know that we needed a Savior. Did I miss something big somewhere in my thinking - or perhaps it is not as simple as I think it is?

halfmom said...

So, I don't have any trouble with God, being God, using the same thing for multiple reasons - ie covenant stipulations. The chosen people needed to be separated out and clearly identified as "different". The covenant accomplishes this and by doing so, draws them and keeps them face to face with the Law and hopefully by consequence, to their need for a Savior.

Drew said...

After reading N. T. Wright's explanation of 2 Cor 5:21 in context at, I would have to agree that this passage fits much better into the context of 2 Corinthians his way. Check it out.