As most readers know, there has been a long scholarly debate over what is known as the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP). This approach argues that “justification” in Paul does not mean what many Christians (especially Reformed folks) have always believed.
In short, NPP advocates (e.g., N.T. Wright, James D.G. Dunn) argue that (a) first-century Judaism was not a works-oriented religion, and (b) “justification by faith” is not referring to the acquisition of a righteous status before God, but instead refers to the fact that membership in the covenant community can be obtained without the standard Jewish boundary markers laid out in the law of Moses (inset is a picture of Mt. Sinai).
One of the major flash points in this debate is the term “righteousness of God.” Paul uses this phrase in a number of places, but it takes center stage particularly in Romans. Indeed, one might suggest that the “righteousness of God” is the theme of the entire book:
For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Rom 1:17).
So, what does this phrase mean? NPP advocates say it refers simply to God’s covenantal faithfulness. Reformed theologians have argued that it refers to a righteous status received from God.
It is on this very question that NPP advocates are facing a new and robust challenge from Lee Irons’ recent volume, The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015). The volume is part of the prestigious Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (WUNT) series.
This volume is a revised version of Irons’ Ph.D. dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary.
I am slowly working my way through the book and have not yet finished it. But, my assessment thus far is that this volume presents one of the most thorough and cogent rebuttals to the NPP in quite a while.
A fantastic and thorough review of this book has just been written by Robert Cara, Professor of New Testament here at RTS Charlotte. The review has recently appeared in the newly released RTS journal, Reformed Faith and Practice.
Cara’s review does an excellent job laying out Irons’ case in extensive detail and is a first stop for anyone looking for a better grasp of this book and the larger debates over the NPP.
Cara concludes his review:
The primary strength of Irons’s work is his consistent explanation of how the lexical evidence fits together within the primary setting of a judge (and/or a king acting as a judge) that is judging against a norm. Pulling together all of the righteousness language demonstrates the various aspects of the semantic range that include righteous judging (positive and negative), righteous judgments, righteous behavior, and correctness (e.g., righteous weights). This in turn explains how the “righteousness of God” in Paul can include both iustitia distributiva (attribute of a righteous judge) in Rom 3:5, 25, 26 and the gift of righteousness (forensic righteousness based on the imputed righteous “behavior” of Christ) in the remainder of verses. Irons also provides answers to why God’s righteousness is often paralleled to God’s salvation in the OT and DSS. God’s salvation (iustitia salutifera) in these contexts is a subset of God’s attribute of justice (iustitia distributiva). Irons is not saying anything new with this view, but it is the comprehensiveness of the data covered and the rebuttals of the relational/covenantal view that makes this book stand out…
In sum, this is an important book that makes a contribution to scholarship concerning the “righteousness of God” in Paul. Yes, Irons’s conclusions support the traditional Reformational view. But he has added to the discussion (1) a comprehensive presentation of the lexical data for “righteousness” and (2) an historical explanation of and various rebuttals to the relational/covenantal view. Due to the price of this book, I imagine that not many of the readers of this journal will be going directly to Amazon after reading this review. However, given the importance of justification, readers ought to be aware of its value.
You can get Irons’ book here (but you may want to get your credit rating checked first!), and you can get Cara’s review here.
See also the great review of Irons’ book from Thom Schreiner which can be found here.
Richard UK says
Thanks for introducing Irons’ work (I’ve read Schreiner and will turn to Cara)
I am pondering how this affects one’s reading of GALATIANS (which is in some ways where the NPP started)
So to start, can one not go with Irons on your point (b) – that justification is right standing before God, but with the NPP on your point (a) – that 1C Judaism was not works-righteous? After all, those Jews did not show any of the diffidence or doubt that marks out people believing in works-righteousness (unless the bar has been set so low, which was not obviously the case with 1C Jews)
Can one then not go on to argue that 1C Jews were seeking to respond, in ‘grateful’ covenantal faithfulness, to God’s covenantal faithfulness to them as His chosen people. Jesus obviously had to disabuse them since they were not in their supposed right standing before God by virtue of descent as they believed, and therefore their own supposed ‘covenantal faithfulness’ was not Spirit-driven and was therefore a sham
So now we can address GALATIANS (and Irons no doubt does)
The Galatians received the Spirit by faith and had been made right with God. I don’t think they were necessarily being made ot question that, but to question the way forward. The prressure on them was to supplement their right standing with a covenantal response to God’s covenantal faithfulness, certainly obedience to the ten commandments and no doubt all 603 others. (and presumably the ‘Judaisers’ were in fact true believers in Jesus who had come into a living faith but were themselves still confused whether the Law was obligatory, or voluntary, or even an issue of weak and strong conscience)
Paul picks up the presenting issues of circumcision and table fellowship, and it tempting to argue from thence that Paul was happy to drop such supposed ‘boundary marker’ elements of the Law from the covenantal response but still require other parts, eg the moral law, to be retained as part of necessary covenantal response. This view is particularly tempting because the gift of the Spirit coincided, at Pentecost, with the tearing down of the wall between Jew and Gentile, and thus boundary markers seem no longer appropriate
However the NPP’s stand on this must fail because Paul and others do not split the law into some parts excluded and others included in any covenantal response whether by Jew or Gentile. He explains that the Law was for a period and that any covenantal response from any of us is by virtue of the working of the Spirit in us – keep in step with the Spirit (though I am not enetirey clear whether ideas such as ‘response’ or ‘our covenantal faithfulness’ are appropriate in these ‘Spirit’ period).
The above would fit with the more nuanced idea that Galatians is not directly about ‘justification by faith’ but, one might say, about sanctification by anything other than by faith. Or, to avoid the highly ambiguous word ‘santification’, Galatians is not about ‘getting in by works’ but ‘trying to stay in by works’. Paul sees this as deadly, though even his anger does not quite go to the point of threatening loss of salvation (“Have you experienced so much in vain— IT IS REALLY WAS IN VAIN?” Gal 3:4) – something we would in any case hold not ot be possible
“and presumably the ‘Judaisers’ were in fact true believers in Jesus who had come into a living faith….”
Consider these verses Richard. When Paul begins and calls down a curse upon anyone who proclaims a different gospel (1:6-9), he is saying the Judaizers (agitators) are bringing the Galatians a “gospel” that is in fact no gospel at all and therefore are under the wrath of God. Paul wastes no time in explicitly rejecting these agitators as Christians.
When Paul thinks back to an instance when “false brothers [were] secretly brought in … to spy out our freedom” (2:4), he is doing this to compare them to the agitators. In other words, by this account he is assuring the Galatians that the men who have come to them and want to put them under the law are false brothers.
JB Lightfoot contended that when Paul asked the Galatians “Who has bewitched you” (3:1), he was alluding to the pagan idea of casting an “evil eye” on someone. By this statement, then, Paul is telling the Galatians that these men are outright evil. While he embraces the NP to a good degree and I do not endorse his writings as a whole, Bruce Longenecker has done helpfully advanced Lightfoot’s view in this article:
In Gal 4:21-31 Paul carries on the flesh-Spirit contrast (cf. 3:2-3) and identifies the agitators as being of the flesh (earthly Jerusalem below who is enslaved to the Law because of their unbelief in Christ, 4:25) whereas the Galatians belong to the realm of the Spirit (Jerusalem above who believe in the promise of righteousness apart from works of the Law, 4:26). The Galatians who are born of the Spirit are experiencing persecution from those who are of the flesh (4:28-29). What is Paul’s point with this redemptive-historic contrast? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman” (4:30). In other words, remove the agitators from the church; they have no part in the kingdom.
In Gal 5:4 he warns the Galatians that if they seek righteousness through the Law, they are cut off from Christ and are no recipients of saving grace. This is the current condition of the agitators. A few verses later he informs the Galatians that the one trying to persuade them is not sent/in accord with God who is calling them through Paul’s very own letter (5:7-8). Paul opposes the agitators because he is a servant of Christ. Then Paul expresses his confidence that “the one who is troubling [agitating] you will bear the penalty” (5:10) and stands against them, wishing that they “would emasculate themselves” (5:12). The penalty and cutting off they will receive is not inheriting the kingdom (5:21).
In Gal 6:12 Paul indicts the agitators for preaching the Law in order to escape persecution for Christ’s cross. We cannot believe in the Law *and* Christ’s death for us, it’s one or the other. By being under the Law, the agitators are not preaching Christ crucified and so will not be persecuted for Christ (contrast this with Paul in 5:11; 6:17). They boast in the flesh (6:13) while Paul, a believer, boasts in Christ (6:14). They belong to the old creation (6:15) which in 1:4 Paul calls “this evil age.” That is to say, they are not participate in the realm of the Spirit (new creation). Lastly, in contrast to the curse in 1:8-9, Paul blesses those who walk by this rule, namely, having received the Spirit through faith alone in Christ crucified (6:16). He thereby excludes the agitators from this blessing. As those under the Law, they are cursed by God (3:10). Grace is only for those in Christ (6:18 cf. 5:2).
So in every chapter of Galatians, Paul says the agitators are in no way Christians. This agrees with what he says about false teachers in 2 Cor and the Pastorals as well as with what 2 Pet and 1 Jn tell us.
Richard UK says
Your exegetical points are well taken, and thank you
While realising my speculation about the Galatian Judaisers cannot at all be maintained, I suppose I had really been mulling over a potential parallel with contemporary teachers who are/appear to be believers and are accepted as such, and yet teach, put brutally, a convoluted non-gospel of ‘get in by faith, stay in by works’. I accept this is a subjective judgment by any of us but there is enough debate in the US at least to suggest some are considered to be in this category
I suspect Paul would use equally condemnatory language of them. Should we tolerate them, even admire them? Should we cut them some slack (ie accept at face value their profession of faith while acknowledging they teach ‘badly’) or more boldly take the view that their message means, as with the Judaisers, that they cannot be believers
Obviously we cannot address ad hominem cases, but might this not be a problem we should address more directly, if we are to offer a united ‘gospel only’ to the outside world who persist (for good reasons, I would suggest) in thinking that a believer is someone who is defined by their good works?
Some argue that different teachings reflect different positions on a scale or axis. But perhaps Paul would say there is a real discontinuity and the Judaisers were the wrong side of it by teaching a neonomian Law, as a fair few do now
I’d welcome any guidance you’d offer on what line you think Paul would take now
I have always maintained that there is a parallel between false teachers in Scripture and Wright/Dunn. I see this as a pastoral use of Scripture which, so far as I know, virtually no one has been willing to make. Such a stance (judgment) would be judged as subjective, arrogant, and immaturely extreme. It’s as if evangelical scholars do not realize the passages in Scripture concerning false teaching are given to us to teach us discernment because there will always be unsound, divisive teachers around the church.
From a scholarship standpoint (knowledge, publishing), Wright is very impressive. Some evangelicals treat Wright as one of the absolute most important NT scholars there is and regardless of his views, accept him as a Christian.
In the Pastoral Epistles, Eph 4:6ff, and 1 John, Scripture tells us how to evaluate those who claim to be teachers. Looking only at 1 John right now, John tells the church at Ephesus that the proto-gnostic teachers who had left the church (2:19) and are trying to draw Christians away are antichrists (2:18; 4:1-6) because of (1) their doctrine, they are denying the gospel by their claims about Christ (2) their life of unrepentant disobedience to Christ’s commands (2:28 – 3:10; 1:5 – 2:6) and (3) their absence of love for God’s people (3:11ff; 4:7ff).
God has spoken to/for his people. Scripture is given to the church. It is not an artifact of history but is holy and belongs to those he has redeemed (cf. 1 Cor 2). But things are such that unbelievers not only handle it in secular college settings, but even write mammoth commentaries, etc. We simply need to distinguish between a scholar who by common grace has the intellect to study language, etc. and a man given by Christ to the church for our edification (Eph 4:6ff). There is a major difference between a scholar and an actual servant of the word (1 Tim 3; Jas 3:1).
Richard UK says
Thank you for this too.
Can I press you further on two points?
1. What exactly is Wright’s error (seeing Paul as only speaking against boundary markers?) and why is that so heinous (because it leaves the door open for a pronomian Jesus+ ‘gospel’?)
2. The word ‘legalist’ is bandied about (meaning ‘trying to get in by works’), but ‘covenantal nomism’ better describes ‘staying in by works’ which I understand to be the Galatian heresy. There are many false teachers out there teaching covenantal nomism who could not be described as NPP. How do those false teachers to identify themselves (apart from avoiding Gal 2 and 3), and what do we do about it?
There has been so much written on/against the NP that is far better than anything I could formulate, so I’ll just give you my briefest thoughts. There is, of course, taking the righteousness of God as his “covenant faithfulness” which Lee’s monograph highlighted in this blog post combats. There is this talk about a “badge” identifying one as a covenant member which strikes me as a replacement for being covered in the righteousness of Christ that delivers us from God’s wrath. What I just wrote there gets at what I see as the fundamentals of the NP error. One, the gospel in the NP is moved from the doctrine of salvation to the doctrine of the church. In other words, justification has to do with gentiles becoming members of God’s people. (I’ve heard Wright criticize our emphasis on individual salvation as if concern for one’s personal soul is self-absorbed and shallow.) Two, the NP displays no real interest in the forgiveness of one’s sins; this is the flip side of the first point. The wrath of God is quite absent from NP’s “gospel” when the cross was in fact the outpouring of God’s wrath on his chosen Servant in place of the elect.
Wright’s claim to fame in evangelical settings was, I believe, his contending for the historic, bodily resurrection of Christ. This made him a hero. But it is possible to believe in Christ’s historical resurrection apart from saving faith in Christ. I did before I was a Christian! The difference now is that I believe Christ rose for me, I have been made a partaker of Christ’s resurrection life (Eph 1:19 – 2:5; Rom 6) so I have been risen with Christ. I saw Wright claim that Christ’s physical resurrection to a material world teaches us that ecology and this planet is important. He is caught up in this age and following the culture’s environmentalism (worship of creation instead of the Creator).
So far as “staying in by works” is concerned, we entered into the new covenant by grace through faith and we are kept in Christ by grace through faith (Gal 3:1-6). The Spirit who united us to Christ sustains our faith so we persevere in our faith in Christ. Out of this grace the Spirit produces his new covenant fruits in us (Gal 5:16ff). Calvin, following Augustine, understood the relation of grace and works. “Works” as in Eph 2:10 or 1 Th 1:3 are attributable to the grace of God upon us.
Gal 1:6-9 is commonly taken as a key passage in the letter. The heart of the letter is actually in 3:1-6 (and the climax is at 5:16ff). All that Paul writes of justification by faith apart from works of the Law is in the service of reminding the Galatians that their sanctification is by faith in Christ crucified apart from works of the Law. The agitators appear to accept that the Galatians are Christians, but they are telling them if they really want to be faithful, they must come under the Law (4:8-10, 21; 5:2-4). The Westminster Standards rightly understood the NT and teaches that sanctification is a work of God’s grace in us (WSC Q.35). Our sanctification is by grace through faith in Christ, not through keeping the Mosaic Law. So as Paul says, the Spirit works in us the same way as we received him – through faith, not by works done in the power of the flesh.
Richard UK says
apologies for one or two typos in the above – my eyesight! (particulary IF IT IS REALLY WAS IN VAIN?)
Lee does good work and I was not surprised that it was accepted into WUNT. Justification by faith has always been Lee’s passion and when I first learned that he was addressing this matter, I knew it would make a long lasting impact.
btw, The price on the volume fluctuates on Amazon. Sometimes it drops down to about $90. I was surprised that Schreiner wrote a review such as that on Lee’s volume when he has also given glaringly positive reviews of books that stand at odds with faith alone (e.g., Hafemann’s dissertation being one of them).
Christopher Scott says
Thanks for this post and link to the book. I’m a little bummed that the book is $134, but hope to follow the discussions online. Thanks for your work!