Justification and the New Perspective on Paul (2)

June 7, 2009 — Leave a comment

[Read the first part of this review here]

We left off in chapter 3 of Justification and the New Perspective on Paul, so let’s pick back up in chapter 4, which summarizes E.P. Sanders’ research and presentation of Judaism, particularly in the NT context. What is interesting in Waters’ presentation of Sanders’ work is that it very clearly demonstrates that Judaism was a semi-Pelagian religion. For one to be semi-Pelagian, one must use the language of grace, while simultaneously leaning on works for one’s ultimate standing before God (i.e. grace-enabled works). Sanders presents an excellent portrait of the literature of 1st century Judaism, but then draws erroneous conclusions from it, namely, missing this above point that is very evident in the very evidence he presents. Chapter 4 ends with an extended critique of Sanders interpretations of his reconstructions of 1st century Judaism, which space does not allow to pursue here. For a good summary of the data on Judaism presented in Sanders work see pgs 51-53; for critique see pgs 54-58.

Chapter 5 is also related to E.P. Sanders, but this time concerning his application of the material in the his studies in Judaism to Paul. The hinge point in Sander’s understanding of 1st century Judaism was that it was a religion of grace (because of its use of grace language in the midst of theological discussions that are works, not grace driven) and so Paul must have faulted it for other reasons. The traditional understanding of Paul had stemmed from seeing Paul faulting Judaism precisely because of its semi-Pelagian nature (see pg. 64). Older critical scholarship had seen Judaism as purely Pelagian (entirely works based) however Sanders rightly reacted to this and offered a correction, but went too far in the other direction. Sanders will then subsequently see Paul disagree with Judaism not because of its reliance on works, but simply because it is not Christianity. Or in other words, Paul is not disagreeing on soteriological grounds with Judaism (as it is traditionally understood), rather it is on grounds of not recognizing the Messiah for who He is. Paul is making an ecclesiological point, not a soteriological point. Sanders sees continuity with Paul and 1st century Judaism where traditional interpreters had seen discontinuity. This seems to be the major thrust of Sanders work.  His presentation of 1st century Judaism in its own words is invaluable, but the conclusions he makes from it and then imports into Pauline interpretation seem problematic at best.

Chapter 6 moves on from Sanders to cover the views of Heikki Raisanen and James Dunn. Concerning Paul’s statements regarding the law, Sanders had felt that Paul was a coherent thinker, while not being consistent or systematic in his treatment of the law. This need to distinguish this had risen from positing that Paul did not have a fundamental disagreement with law-keeping per se, just that it was done without recognition of Christ. Raisanen goes one step further and is content to just call a spade a spade and say that Paul is inconsistent (pg. 92). Raisanen far more than Sanders stresses the incompatibility of Paul’s two fundamental premises, the Christ event and the law as a divine institution (pg.95). After commenting briefly on him, Waters then turns his attention to Dunn.

Dunn differs from Sanders and Raisanen in that he sees a fundamental consistency and coherence to Paul’s thought (pg. 96). Dunn stresses that the law functioned as a boundary marker that distinguished Israel from other nations. Being righteous then involved law-keeping as that was Israel’s part of the bargain in the covenant with God. Dunn then sees Paul’s language of justification as an acknowledgment that a person is already a part of the community of the saved, thereby maintaining continuity with its use in Judaism (pg.104). It is clear then that Dunn sees things a bit differently than the Reformers did in regard to Paul’s use of justification.

The rest of the chapter is a presentation of Dunn’s arguments against the traditional arguments at such places as Galatians 3:10-13, Romans 9:30-32, Romans 11:5-6, Romans 4:4-5, Philippians 3:6, Romans 7:7-25. Depth is not permitted, nor really necessary for our purposes here, other than to point out that throughout the book, Waters seems to do a good job of presenting the particular person’s views in their own words concerning how they exegete certain passages of Scripture, and reserves comment for later. That way, when commenting later, Waters can offer a response to the themes in the movement as a whole rather than each major scholar’s view on a certain passage as there is not uniformity among them at all points.

The NPP is not monolithic, and this is very well demonstrated by Water’s book. One thing in closing the chapter on Dunn is that Waters points out that Dunn conceives of many of the terms in Paul’s writings (i.e. righteousness, justification, works of the law, etc) as being metaphoric. This is certainly true to an extent, but it is shaky ground to go as far as Dunn seems to go, as it can easily empty the language Paul uses of pointing to any specific reality outside itself. This may not be entirely present in Dunn’s writing, but it is hinted at by Waters at least, and worthy of close consideration.

Chapter 7 brings us to an exposition of NT Wright. Wright, it is noted lends a practical dimension to the NPP that the others do not, and therefore deserves special attention (pg.119).  Given this aspect of things, I decided to read through Wright’s latest book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Rather than unpack Water’s understanding of Wright here, I’m going to attempt to that side by side with a review of Wright’s new book keeping in mind the critiques that Waters and Piper have offered. Judginig from the initial tone of Wright’s book, he is mainly responding to Piper and is aware of Waters’ book, but doesn’t appear to have read it judging from the way he briefly comments on it. Just in the reading today what I did in Wright’s book, there has already emerged an area of study where Wright dogmatically asserts something that Waters has done far more work in and has come to quite different conclusions (Paul’s use of Deut. 27-30, Waters wrote his Ph.D dissertation on it, under Sanders). This may or may not be a sign of things to come, but the next section here will probably present a view of Wright’s position, and then offer critiques where necessary. This may be something I return to much later as I don’t know how long it will take to digest Wright’s book and then analyze it in comparison to Waters and Piper. It could be a while. It could be next weekend. Hopefully, it’ll be sooner rather than later.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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