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 when Paul mentions “justification by faith” he is not referring to a doctrine about how one gets saved but to how membership in the covenant community can be obtained without the standard Jewish boundary markers laid out in the law of Moses (food laws, circumcision, Sabbath observance).
In other words, justification is less about soteriology and more about ecclesiology. It is not about how a person becomes a Christian but a declaration that they have become a Christian.
But in all the debates over how to properly understand Paul sometimes people miss the fact that this view of justification is built entirely upon an earlier and more foundational premise, namely that first-century Judaism was not a works-oriented religion.
The NPP stands or falls on this one issue.
Indeed, scholars argue that Paul can’t be using “justification by faith” as alternative to salvation by works because first-century Jews didn’t believe in salvation by works!
But, this is precisely where the NPP is vulnerable. If it can be shown that some first-century Jews did believe in salvation by works, then the foundation of the NPP would begin to crack.
And this is precisely the purpose of Robert Cara’s new book, Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology (Mentor, 2017).
Cara is the Hugh and Sallie Reaves Professor of New Testament here at RTS Charlotte, and Provost of the entire RTS institution.
Just when you thought there was little new to say in the NPP debate, this volume really does something unique. Focusing just on the issue of whether first-century Judaism was (or was not) works-oriented, Cara offers a litany of new arguments favoring the traditional view.
As just one example, Cara dives into a number of Pauline texts that are routinely ignored simply because they appear in letters that scholars believe were not written by Paul: Eph 2:8-10; Titus 3:4-7; and 2 Tim 1:8-10. What is remarkable about these texts is that even NPP advocates concede that they are arguing against a salvation-by-works perspective.
If so, then these passages prove, argues Cara, that at least some first-century Jews did, in fact, believe in works righteousness. Even if Paul didn’t write these books (though Cara thinks he did), they still show that a works-righteousness mentality was a problem in the first century. It was a big enough problem that the author of these letters (if it is not Paul) felt the need to battle against it.
And that fact alone strikes a serious blow to the foundation of the NPP.
If one concedes that these texts are contrasting a works righteousness soteriology with grace, then one would also have to concede works righteousness existed in Second Temple Judaism (131).
In addition, if someone believes in the Pauline authorship of these three letters (Ephesians, Titus, 2 Timothy) then there are good reasons to doubt the NPP view of justification. Otherwise, we would have to argue that Paul contradicted himself. We would have to believe that Paul had one view of justification in Galatians and Romans and an entirely different view of justification in Ephesians, Titus, and 2 Timothy.
There are, of course, many more arguments made by Cara in his book. So, you will want to get a copy and check it out for yourself.
In addition, check out Cara’s excellent summary and review of Lee Iron’s book on the NPP, The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation (Mohr-Siebeck, 2015).
From an academic perspective, would you say the NPP movement is gaining or losing momentum? Or did it really ever have it in the first place?
J Robert Manuel III says
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar?”
James 2:21 ASV
Theologians over the the millennia have debated justification. Is it by faith or works or both? Paul is very clear on the point. Sola Fide. However so is James, ” Faith without works is dead”. A similar observation can be made for “Justification” in James 2:21
I believe that scripture is true and will not contradict its self; therefore, the answer must be in the authors differing definition of faith & justification. Also their teachings on these subjects are dependent on context of the letters, and the differences in the addreressed audiences. Taking those into account the apparent differences can be deemed complementary not contradictory.
I’m not sure that theological disernment is advanced by debating whether 1st Century Jewry believed in works righteousness. Of course some did as others believed that their justification was solely dependent on their Jewish birthright.
David Johnson says
Lois H. Westerlund says
J. Robert Manual III, your point is well-taken. I believe there is consistency when James and Paul are rightly read. We are indeed justified by faith, as Paul declares, but faith that is not real is not saving faith. Saving faith demonstrates its reality in the works that we see. That is James’s point. Mental assent is not saving faith. And has that message ever stopped being relevant? We need James. We also need Paul to show that the justifying nature of Abraham’s works is solely because they are the outward evidence of an inward faith in God, the faith that enables God to justify Abraham. And what a faith–it never fails to move me to awe and humility!
Jason Daniel says
One need only look at the Pharisees to see in they believed that it was works-based or not. Why do we need books written on it when the one Book that matters makes it absolutely clear?
You are thoroughly misrepresenting N.T. Wright in your opening remarks. Particularly, you allege that “NPP advocates (e.g., N.T. Wright, James D.G. Dunn) argue that when Paul mentions ‘justification by faith’ he is not referring to the acquisition of a righteous status before God, but 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 (food laws, circumcision, Sabbath observance).”
Nobody who has read and understood N. T. Wright’s books on Paul could make such a statement in good conscience. Take, for example, his many discussions of the matter in “Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision,” where he repeatedly states that justification is the granting of a righteous status. For the sake of space, I offer just two representative quotations from the aforementioned publication:
“‘Righteousness’, within the lawcourt setting … denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favor” (90).
“But part of the point of Paul’s own language, rightly stressed by those who have analyzed the verb dikaioo, ‘to justify,’ is that it does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of ‘justification,’ not the character” (91).
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Tim. NPP advocates have a variety of views on the meaning of justification. My point here was simply that they do not believe justification includes the a righteous status that is imputed on the basis of Christ’s own righteousness. Yes, Wright argues for a righteous status of sorts, but not based on the imputed righteousness of Christ. But to avoid any confusion, I have reworded that sentence to speak more broadly.
J Robert Manuel III says
Dr Kruger’s post has obviously inspired a great deal of feedback, and for the right reasons. The Reformed position of sola fide and its associated doctrines of justification and imputed righteousness are serious soteriological subjects which seem to be under attack by the NNP theologians. I’m not acquainted with the writings of Dunn but have read a half a dozen books by NTWright . So I’ll weigh in with my take on NTW’s positions.
Firstly NTW holds a big-picture world view on God’s plan for His creation. He espouses that God is on a rescue mission to redeem His fallen creation. That mission is incomplete until the next coming of Christ. He sent his son with the ‘primary purpose’ to usher in the new Kingdom which was accomplished by his death and resurrection. We are currently living in that “dispensation”.
Secondly; As his followers, we are called to be his priests and rulers. Our role individually and corporately as His church, is to assist Christ in the perfection of the new kingdom until his coming again.
Thirdly, This Christian life can best be lived out by the ardent practice of virtue ethics. Thereby exhibiting the fruits of the spirit and working on His behalf resolving social justice issues.
The emphasis of NTW’s theology is primarily eschatology then ecclesiology and and to a lesser extent soteriology. This was clearly laid out in his book, “After you Believe”; in which which, he presented his nunc-millennial eschatology in detail and then apologized for Christians to live an exemplary life of doing good deeds in the furtherance of the new kingdom.
I contend that NTW’s fore’ into soteriological issues of faith and justification was intended to support of his new kingdom eschatology and his Church family ecclesiology. His observation that the Jews accounted righteousness to their reliance on keeping the law is just that, an historical fact. Where he leaves the ranch is when he attributes that observation to a total revision of the reformed soteriology. As Michael Jensen observed. “For NT Wright, faith is not the means by which a person is saved but is rather a sign that a person has been saved “the badge of the forgiven family” “Being ‘justified by faith’ means something like ‘becoming a member of the [new] covenant people of God’, evidenced by trusting God’s promises.”
My sense is that even under the NPP’s assault, the reformed doctrines of soteriology will stand the test of time. Why, because they are true!
Lois H. Westerlund says
Thank you, Dr. Kruger, and Tim. In my reading of Wright, the difference is subtle; it is a matter of emphasis. Yes, the justified person is granted new status, but the importance of that for Wright is that the justified one is now a member of the covenant community. Which he is, but that is the result of his now having peace with God, which is essential. (Romans 5:1). What is the sinner’s greatest need? Is it his alienation from God, or from the covenant? How this question is answered reflects the importance you give to the judgment of God against the sinner: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18) Wright would agree, of course, but the emphasis has shifted. I find Wright’s re-definition of “righteousness” to mean “faithfulness”, and his re-defining of “justification” to make it relational, to the covenant community, is consistent with his minimizing our guilt before God, His righteous wrath and our eternal condemnation, unless we seek refuge in the Son and His atoning work for us.
Thank you, Dr. Kruger; I am encouraged by your review and Cara’s book.
Matthew Dodd says
Nailed it Lois!
Lois H. Westerlund says
Thank you for the encouragement, Matthew.
John S says
This is what I don’t understand about NPP, isn’t the sinner’s need is both/and – reconciliation with God and inclusion in the covenant community? But NPP, in my understanding, is concerned with their hierarchy and a battle about which is more significant. They go together, to be celebrated in the full scope of God’s amazing grace through Christ alone. That’s the main reason I don’t agree, it makes less of God’s gospel of grace by detracting from it’s fullness. Anytime a teaching makes less of God I’m willing to listen, but no. Again in my understanding, which is probably not nuanced enough.
I suppose it’s the justification piece I’m not understanding. To be justified relationally – rather than reconciled or adopted or having peace made et al – seems cleary off. When there is other legal terminology in the NT, and with the Jews familiarity with their own Law and judges and court rulings from the OT AND the Roman judicial system for at least a generation – along with the idea of something ‘new’ in 2000AD – gratefully for the helpful truths about God’s covenant people, but I’m not buying redefined justification.
Lois H. Westerlund says
John, you ask a good question: “Isn’t the sinner’s need both/and – reconciliation with God and inclusion in the covenant community?” I’d like to respond by taking the question apart a bit. The first part, that we need to be reconciled with God, is clear from abundant scripture, as I believe you agree. The second part, our need “to be included in the covenant” reflects Wright’s emphasis on the importance of God’s covenant with Israel, now extended to the Gentiles, which, for him, is the emphasis of the Epistle to the Romans. But we now eat the broken body and drink the shed blood of the New Covenant, the one Christ Himself instituted. (Mark 14:24) Christ fulfilled the old covenant when He bled for us, and they hung His broken body on the cross. When we come to Him in faith, God places us in His Son (Romans 8:1), credits His righteousness to us (Rom, 2:22,23), makes us, who are dead in our sins, alive (Eph. 2, 4.5), makes us his children (John 1:12), and imparts the Holy Spirit to reside within us! We are so “much more” (the language of Hebrews) than “members of the covenant”: we are His body, His church, His bride. (It is this emphasis on the supernatural, the spiritual reality of the new birth and the church of Jesus Christ, that I keenly miss when I read Wright.) The difference between a community and a body is that a body has a head! We, the body of Christ, have one Head, Jesus Christ. As fellow members of His body, we are called to rejoice with, and weep with, each other. As His Spirit within works in us, we are enabled to fulfill that calling. This is the way I understand God’s Word. But, as I have said, it is subtle. Undoubtedly, Wright would have no problem with anything I have written.
“We are so “much more” (the language of Hebrews) than “members of the covenant”: we are His body, His church, His bride.”
I think another problem is they fail to realize that mixing in any works wrecks grace. So for this reason they fail to comprehend. even the Pharisee with the Publican said “thank you God I’m not like this…” that Pharisee believed in grace then.
Bill Evans says
Thanks for this post. I’m glad to see the volume appear.
You speak of a “litany of new arguments.” In addition to its examination of the allegedly deutero-Pauline materials, how, in your judgement, does this book advance the discussion beyond earlier works like, say, Carson/O’Brien/Seifrid, Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (2001)?
At this point, it seems that the problems associated with the NPP are pretty clear. For example, the existence of STJ texts reflecting a legalistic soteriology has been recognized since at least the early 1990s. As Simon Gathercole and others have noted, some Pauline texts in Romans and even Galatians speaking of “works of the law” have the Mosaic law comprehensively in mind, rather than just those aspects that separated Jew and Gentile. And finally, the “peace with God” vs. “inclusion in the covenant community” argument is a false dichotomy. Paul is clearly concerned about both, and deeply so.
At the same time, however, the NPP did us a distinct service by pointing out that Paul had sometimes been abstracted from his Jewish context, and that the Jew/Gentile problem (which is really the question of the relationship between the OT economy as conditioned by the Mosaic Law and the NT economy instantiated by the coming of the Messiah) was a really big deal in the NT. And how could it have been otherwise?
So, when and how are we going to move beyond the now sterile NPP Bad/Traditional Reformed Theology Good terms of debate?
Lois H. Westerlund says
Bill Evans, you write as a theologian declaring the NPP Bad/Traditional Reformed Theology Good debate “now sterile.” For those of us down here in the ranks, it feels anything but. It has a burgeoning fruitfulness in the current theological climate. I hear its language everywhere, and read it on church websites. Its effect–all the more powerful for its sublety–is to turn the focus of sincere believers from fervent, dying-to-self love of the Savior who has delivered them from their mouth-stopping guilt before a Holy and Just God to what He will do for them–a physical resurrection and a new creation which ends all troubles of earth. It is a matter of focus. It is a matter of the heart, that which God views as most important. (Prov. 4:23). That loss, for me, outweighs the benefits of reading Paul in his Jewish context.
Bill Evans says
Lois, I’m not sure that I’m following you here, but I gather that your concern is that the NPP subverts a forensic starting point for thinking about salvation (the preeminent problem being, as you put it, “mouth-stopping guilt before a Holy and Just God,” which is “most important”). Assuming I’m reading you correctly, I would simply respond by agreeing that the NPP has not done a good job of handling the forensic aspect.
But I would also note that the gospel is not just freedom from the guilt of sin, as important as that is. It is also freedom from the power of sin, and both of these are to be found only on Christ himself. Thus Calvin spoke of the “double grace” of justification and sanctification, both received through our union with Christ. Though Calvin also recognized (as do I) an existential priority to justification, he actually treated sanctification first in the 1559 ed. of the Institutes!
I would add that the question is not whether we should read Paul in his Jewish context or not. Of course we should (if we want to understand him). Rather, the question is the nature of that Jewish context, and I’m hoping that Bob Cara’s book will add to our understanding on this point, and supplement, e.g., the fine essay by Moises Silva in the second volume of Justification and Variegated Nomism that I referenced above.
“[T]his view of justification is built entirely upon an earlier and more foundational premise, namely that first-century Judaism was not a works-oriented religion.”
Sorry, but this is an utter misunderstanding of Wright’s perspective. Tom Wright does not argue that first-century Judaism was not a works-oriented religion. In fact he argues that the Jews, as God’s chosen people in covenant, were given the law to perform as the means of fulfilling their vocation to be the light of the world (Is 49:6). In filling their vocation by performing the law, they would be integral to undoing the curse of Adam and allow God to bring about the time of salvation, which is repeatedly promised in the prophetic OT texts (for example, Is 24-27).
Wright also argues that salvation is not simply about individuals escaping the wrath of God on judgment day – though it certainly includes that. Salvation is more broadly about undoing the exile, bringing the nations to worship God, and welcoming God’s perfect rule on earth (cf. Is 2). This is the salvation that Paul calls us to “work out with fear and trembling” in order to “shine like stars in the world” (Philipp. 2:12-15). Individual salvation must be understood within its proper cosmic context lest it become a totally self-centered exercise.
So how does salvation come about? Well, Wright explains what Scripture clearly teaches, namely that Jews were unable to keep the law, and therefore were not able to fulfill their vocation as God’s image-bearers, neglecting the cause of the orphan and the widow, among other things (Is. 1). Where Israel was unable, Jesus himself was able. He was the true Israel. He was totally faithful. And it is that faithfulness – His faithfulness – to Israel’s vocation that allows him to be the light of the world and undo the curse of Adam, ushering in the cosmic salvation. Everyone who is a part of the community of the Messiah, all those who are in Christ, are partakers in that salvation.
So how does one move into Christ, to become a part of the community of the Messiah? Wright, following Paul, argues that it is not by attempting to fulfill the Jewish law, since the Jewish law has served its purpose. The law has been fulfilled in Jesus, and for the rest of us, the law is only powerful to highlight our sinfulness. Rather, one partakes in the Messiah by faith. Faith is believing the gospel, that Jesus has filled the covenant community’s vocation to be a light to the world through his faithfulness unto death, and that through his resurrection He is the avenue through which creation is being and will be remade. By believing, one joins the covenant people of God and is declared by God to be in the right – “righteous,” or, to use Paul’s term, “justified.” Wright takes issue with the idea that Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to us during that process because that is not how Paul describes it. Rather, Paul uses the language of declaration – the judge declares us righteous, and therefore we are righteous, just as a judge in a courtroom has the power to declare a person innocent regardless of their actual behavior (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 945-8).
What is the nature of belief and faith? Even belief in the gospel, according to Wright, is due to the work of the Holy Spirit. Faith, according to Wright, has little meaning as an abstract term dislocated from its object – for example, he writes that just as the “view” one might have from a room is not something that one possesses, but rather consists entirely in being able to see the distant scene, so too faith “is what it is because looks away from itself, and looks towards, and leans it weight upon, the single act of the one God in the Messiah” (Paul, 952). Faith creates a loyal, life-giving response to the gracious, loving offer of Jesus, who has once-for-all removed the curse, paid the penalty for sin, and advocates for his people. This loyal response to being welcomed into the covenant community, adopted into the family of God, will by its very nature include the bearing of good fruit – good works – under the power of the Holy Spirit.
Wright lays this out clearly in his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which is the fruit of careful and loving interaction with the entire sweep of the Biblical narrative. For the current discussion, I would highlight pages 944-966 in his book.
Why is all of this important? For starters, the typical Reformed “digest” of the OT narrative misses some pretty important points that go a long way towards explaining what Jesus thought he was doing, and what Paul thought Jesus had accomplished. Wright does a masterful job of leading his audience through that narrative. The results are life-changing. We get to see Jesus more richly and increase our faith in him. What is more, we understand more fully our vocation in being a light to the world – that we might feel free to leave behind the comforts of America or building our academic reputations or our pastoral careers in order to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Wouldn’t it be crazy to have a Reformed seminary or church that was actually located in a difficult place, primed to minister to the poor and forgotten? Or an intelligent Reformed pastor who, instead of fretting about writing a popular book, toils daily in obscurity sharing the gospel in a non-English speaking, Muslim or Hindu, destitute country? These are just examples, obviously. But does this happen?
You bring discredit to your whole explanation about Wright with your rebuke about Traditional reformed outreach in your last statements. The largest Reformed assemblies are in Indonesia (the largest Muslim population in the world), Korea and Nigeria! – so get your facts straight about Reformed pastors, churches & outreach before making accusations against your brethren’s attitude about preaching the gospel in foreign places. The first missionaries were also Calvinists (though mainly Baptist! – Judson, Taylor, Fuller, etc.,). Your comments misrepresented historical facts – much like many in NPP camps do on a variety of topics (e.g. 2nd temple judiasm – grace/works among Jews, etc.,)… and as the Cara’s new book will point out,.
And I also question why it takes so much time and effort (on most blogs) to “explain Nt Wright” for us? Is he not able to clearly state and defend his own views? – I don’t think anyone faintly acquainted with the controversy over the last 10 years in theological circles needs another treatise about “how objectors don’t understand Wright”. The fact is that both sytematic and reformed biblcial theologians understand Wright quiet well when he speaks on his views about of justification & other major doctrines. And for all the good eschatology he might develop (none which is totally original) he is weak in many other areas. And Wright is well aware of the changes he is making against reformed doctrine no matter how much he downplays them or trys to avoid direct answers to serious questions … Add to the fact that he does not accept Biblical innerrancy, the historicity of Adam as traditionally interpreted Genesis , etc., etc.,… and well you don’t need another explaination about what “he means”. He is not conservative or reformed on major points no matter how much you like his eschatology (of course in his circles – mostly liberal – I’m sure he is seen as radical and conservative) … Want an example of classic Wright – here in his own words on Adam he demonstrates how “the reason” of the world easily influences his hermeneutical presuppositions about a text … (or how it ignores the New Testament writers interpretion of the OT or how NT writers interpreted the current Jewish culture toward faith/works – Rom.10:1-4, 5-10).
Quote -“The way I see it is that there were many hominids or similar creatures, part of the long slow process of God’s good creation. And at a particular time God called a particular pair for a particular task: to look after his creation and make it flourish in a whole new way. Actually, this fits with the scientific evidence according to which there were some significant changes in the hominid population and lifestyle around 6000 years ago, though I wouldn’t myself put too much weight on that.” NT Wright (end quote). We have 3 chapters about creation and the best we can proclaim as truly historically ‘real’ is that God used a pair of evolved hominids as his temple creature dwellers? That is the person you are feverently defending.
For all Wright’s challenge to liberalism he stills has one foot in the their puddle! He lives in the modern world despite Jesus or Paul’s clear indications of how they viewed Genesis & Jewish law (Mt.19:5-6, Rom.5:12-21; 10:1-4) – Jesus becomes the 2nd hominid ?… and a serpent talking ?… a magical tree of life ?… a woman made from a rib? …. few parts historical ‘real’ or actual – mostly metaphorical poetry.. But who get 1st place to decide how we view this text? Darwin & science. … again puddle jumping… but – you can’t have your cake and eat too!
I appreciate you taking the time to respond. I really didn’t mean my last paragraph as a rebuke at all, and perhaps it could have been better worded. For what it’s worth, I put most of those final statements in question format because these were honest questions. I am indeed glad to hear of the Reformed assemblies in Korea, Nigeria, and Indonesia. I do not know anything about Indonesia, but I have lived in Nigeria and was impressed with a Korean Reformed fellowship while in college. At the same time, most of the Reformed missionaries I know in these countries do their work in regions that have long been Christianized, and are actually relatively comfortable to live in.
My family and I live and share the gospel in an extremely poor, harsh, and uniformly Muslim country. I’m not saying that to draw attention to myself or to compare my situation to anyone else’s, much less to embarrass anyone or point a finger. My point is quite different – namely, I wish we had more Christian missionaries here, including more Reformed ones. It pains me that the poor and difficult places remain ignored, especially since, when I return to America, I regularly meet Reformed seminary students who are mainly interested in finding church jobs in wealthy American neighborhoods. I’m impressed with Reformed zeal for truth and doctrine, and wonder why I don’t see it matched in Reformed willingness to be uncomfortable for the sake of the gospel, whether it’s in Detroit, New Orleans, or the deserts of Africa. The Reformed Christians are simply not here. Why is that? I don’t know.
I thought maybe Wright’s reading of Scripture, especially as far as the New Perspective is concerned, could help expand some of my Reformed friends’ view of the gospel, thereby demonstrating that missions (local and global, spiritual and physical) is actually fairly basic to the meaning of the gospel message. Hence my explanation above. I’m not sure a few paragraphs is all that long or complicated a summary of anyone’s position on the Biblical narrative, whether Wright’s or anybody else’s. And I remain curious if there is anything in that summary that Reformed believers, including you, find either helpful on the one hand or troublesome on the other. After all, however imperfectly, we’re all striving for one and the same thing, which is to know Christ and make him known.
Thanks to you for the interaction and to Dr. Kruger for allowing comment on this issue.
Lois H. Westerlund says
Thank you for this, and for the example of your God-honoring, self-denying ministry in an uncongenial setting. Is the problem you write about–the paucity of Reformed missionaries in regions such as yours–a matter of theology, or of the heart?