The New Perspective on Paul argues that the traditional-Protestant understanding of justification is mistaken; rather than opposing works-righteousness, Paul is, according to the New Perspective, opposing Jewish boundary markers in the New Testament people of God. One standard view within the New Perspective on Paul is that initial justification is by faith and recognizes covenant status (ecclesiology), while final justification is partially by works, albeit works produced by the Spirit.
The New Perspective on Paul, a major scholarly shift that began in the 1980s, argues that the Jewish context of the New Testament has been wrongly understood and that this misunderstand has led to errors in the traditional-Protestant understanding of justification. According to the New Perspective, the Jewish systems of salvation were not based on works-righteousness but rather on covenantal nomism, the belief that one enters the people of God by grace and stays in through obedience to the covenant. This means that Paul could not have been referring to works-righteousness by his phrase “works of the law”; instead, he was referring to Jewish boundary markers that made clear who was or was not within the people of God. For the New Perspective, this is the issue that Paul opposes in the NT. Thus, justification takes on two aspects for the New Perspective rather than one; initial justification is by faith (grace) and recognizes covenant status (ecclesiology), while final justification is partially by works, albeit works produced by the Spirit. However, Reformed theologians argue that the New Perspective’s reconstruction of the Jewish context is not altogether correct and that it is easy to find examples of works-righteousness that Paul could have been opposing in the NT. Additionally, taking the entire witness of the NT letters (rather than only Romans, Galatians, and Philippians) points towards the traditional-Protestant understanding of justification.
Starting in the 1980s and continuing to the present, a major scholarly shift has taken place among many concerning Paul’s view of justification with the leading scholars being E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright. Before this shift, most biblical scholars, even those within the various liberal/critical camps, more-or-less equated Paul’s view of justification with the traditional-Protestant view. This newer view has come to be known as the “New Perspective on Paul” with the explicit understanding that the “old” perspective, that is, the traditional-Protestant perspective, is wrong or at least needs serious modification.
This essay will critically engage the New Perspective as it relates to the doctrine of justification. This article will concentrate on explaining the rationale as to how New Perspective authors arrive at their views. This rationale will be summarized as the “five points of the New Perspective” (following Cara, Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul, pp. 20–25). Then, several broad-brush critiques of the New Perspective will be presented. For a discussion of the traditional-Protestant (biblical!) view of justification per se, see the related articles in this Concise Theology series.
Explanation of the New Perspective Relative to Justification
The New Perspective is really two new perspectives that build upon each other. The foundation is a new perspective of the soteriological (salvation) system that existed in first-century AD Judaism. Given this new foundation, a different view of Paul’s soteriological system must be constructed upon it. Why is the soteriology of first-century Judaism important for Paul’s view? New Perspective authors note that justification is discussed by Paul several times in contexts that include either non-Christian Jews or Christian Jews (e.g., Rom. 2; 9–11; Gal. 3–5; Phil. 3). Given this, they insist that this new view of Judaism must change our understanding Paul’s view of justification because it better explains Paul’s opponents and even Paul himself.
So what is this new perspective on first-century Judaism? Judaism in all its forms was uniformly a grace-based soteriological system; it was not a works-righteousness system. This uniform system was given the name, “covenantal nomism” by E. P. Sanders (“nomism” comes from the Greek word for law, nomos). One enters the covenant by election/grace and stays in by obedience to the law. Sanders stressed that staying in the covenant by obedience to the law was not considered legalistic works-righteousness, at least by his definition of works righteousness.
How does this new Jewish perspective relate to Paul’s view of justification and the wrongness of the traditional-Protestant view? The New Perspective correctly understood that the traditional-Protestant view sees justification by faith as the opposite of legalistic works righteousness; one is declared righteous based on Christ’s work versus being declared righteous based on one’s own works. That is, the traditional-Protestant view sees Paul opposing two soteriological systems: justification by grace/Christ’s-work/faith (grace soteriology) versus justification by works of the law (works-righteousness soteriology). The New Perspective rejects that Paul is opposing these two systems. Why? Because according to the new view of Judaism, a works-righteousness soteriology did not exist! Therefore, Paul could not have been arguing against a non-existent works-righteousness soteriology. Therefore, the first of the “five points” is that New Perspective authors agree that Paul was not arguing against a legalistic works-righteousness view because it did not exist—that is, they accept Sanders’s covenantal nomism. And since the traditional-Protestant view of justification is at least partially understood by what it is opposes (i.e., works righteousness), then its view of justification must be wrong. Hence, the second point is that New Perspective authors agree on what justification is not—it is not the traditional-Protestant view.
The above shows what the New Perspective is against; it is against the traditional-Protestant views of works and justification based on its understanding of Judaism. But, according to the New Perspective, what does Paul mean by these terms? New Perspective authors define “works of the law” (e.g., Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16) as primarily emphasizing three Jewish boundary markers: Sabbath, circumcision, and food laws. In the first-century Greco-Roman world, these three separated Jews from Gentiles. Paul states that one is justified by faith and not by Jewish boundary markers. (Note that the New Perspective does not see these boundary markers as part of a larger category of works righteousness as the traditional-Protestant view does.) The third of the “five points” is that New Perspective authors agree that “works of the law” primarily refers to Jewish boundary markers: Sabbath, circumcision, and food laws.
Why are these boundary markers so important to Paul? New Perspective authors argue that Paul’s Gentile mission is what prompted his discussion of justification; it is not necessarily a core soteriological view for Paul. In situations where Paul wanted to ensure that Jewish Christians were accepting Gentile Christians, he discussed justification. If this was not an issue, there was no need for it. The fourth point, which builds directly on the third, is that New Perspective authors agree that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is the context for his teaching on justification.
Finally, what is the New Perspective view of justification? Before answering, we must note that the above four points are all agreed upon by all New Perspective authors; however, the actual Pauline meaning of justification is debated among New Perspective authors. One prominent view is held by Dunn and Wright. For them, justification has two components, initial and final. Initial justification concerns who is in the church or the status of being in the covenant community (ecclesiology); it is not related to conversion (soteriology). Initial justification is related to grace, Christ’s work, and faith, but it does not relate to the imputation of Christ’s work to the believer. Final justification is partially based on one’s works, although one’s works done in the Spirit. Finally, the fifth of the five points is that New Perspective authors are not united on justification. One standard view is that initial justification is by faith and recognizes covenant status (ecclesiology), while final justification is partially by works, albeit works produced by the Spirit.
To summarize the “five points of the New Perspective”:
- New Perspective authors agree that Paul was not arguing against a legalistic works-righteousness view because it did not exist—that is, they accept Sanders’s covenantal nomism.
- New Perspective authors agree on what justification is not—it is not the traditional-Protestant view.
- New Perspective authors agree that “works of the law” primarily refers to Jewish boundary markers: Sabbath, circumcision, and food laws.
- New Perspective authors agree that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is the context for his teaching on justification.
- New Perspective authors are not united on justification. One standard view is that initial justification is by faith and recognizes covenant status (ecclesiology), while final justification is partially by works, albeit works produced by the Spirit.
Three Broad-Brush Critiques of the New Perspective’s View of Justification
The traditional-Protestant view has two major problems with New Perspective’s view of justification: (1) A believer’s works are included as part of final justification; that is, in the end, a believer is declared righteous (justified) based on some combination of his faith and his works; and (2) imputation of Christ’s work to the believer is denied. Given these two, justification is no longer a once-for-all declaration that by grace alone God declares sinners to be righteous in his sight based on the work of Christ alone through the instrument of faith alone (Rom. 4:5; 8:1; Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9; Eph. 2:8; 2 Tim. 2:9; Titus 3:7).
This brief article is not the place for extended Jewish-background arguments and significant exegesis of Pauline texts. However, three broad-brush critiques of the New Perspective arguments will be provided. Since the New Perspective view of justification is strongly tied to the denial that Paul is contrasting justification with works righteousness, what follows will concentrate on works righteousness.
Jewish Documents and Works-Righteousness
As can be seen from the above discussion of the five points of the New Perspective, the logical starting point and foundation of the New Perspective is a new view of first-century Judaism, which emphasizes that legalistic works-righteousness uniformly did not exist. How did Sanders argue for this when there are numerous examples of early Jewish documents that on the surface include a works-righteousness soteriology, either a crass version (“Pelagian”) or a version that combines faith and works (“semi-Pelagian”)? Examples include 4 Ezra 7; Sirach 3:14, 30; 16:14; 2 Baruch 14:12; 24:1; 41:6; Testament of Abraham A12:12–13; A 14:2–4; Rule of the Community (1QS) I, 7–8; III, 9–12; Pesher Habakkuk (1QpHab) VIII, 1–3; Miqsat Ma‘ase Ha-Torah (4QMMT) C 26–32; m. Abot 2:16; 3:15; 4:11, 22; and t. Qiddushin 1:13–16.
Part of the answer to this is Sanders’s imprecise definition of works righteousness. His own definition of “covenantal nomism” includes that staying in the covenant is done by obedience to the law. He does not see that this definition itself could easily be construed as a semi-Pelagian works-righteousness soteriology. What about some of examples where works are weighed on scales in order to determine whether one gets into heaven? Sanders answers that these documents are not written by systematic theologians and sometimes they use incentives to do good works that violate their actual soteriology. One could respond, however, that one’s incentives for good works is part of one’s overall theology.
However, not every early Jewish group and document were works-righteousness oriented; only some were. Once given that some groups were works-righteousness oriented, there is no need to deny that Paul’s opponents had these views since this is the straightforward way to take Paul’s comments. Once some documents are admitted to have works-righteousness, the inner-logic of the New Perspective’s own presuppositions should destroy its conclusions concerning the need for a new view of Pauline justification. (Note that the ultimate argument for the traditional-Protestant view must be made from Scripture. Non-canonical sources may be useful, but only as fallible aids to interpret Scripture.)
Jewish Boundary Markers and Works Righteousness
The New Perspective defines Paul’s expression “works of the law” as primarily including three Jewish boundary markers: Sabbath, circumcision, and food law. Also, it does not see that Paul is opposing two soteriological systems when he contrasts justification by faith and justification by works of the law (Rom. 4:2; Gal. 2:16). That is, “works of the law” is not considered in any way related to works-righteousness. Why not? For Paul, according to the New Perspective, OT saints were finally justified based on faith in God and works. Similarly, NT saints are finally justified based on faith in Christ and works. Both the OT and NT soteriological systems are the same, both include faith and works; Paul’s concentration on “works of the law” is simply to say that the boundary-marker aspect of works in the NT are no longer in force.
The traditional-Protestant view is that Paul realizes that his opponents’s unhealthy view of Jewish boundary markers, especially in Galatians, is part of a more basic works-righteousness soteriology. This more basic works-righteousness soteriology is shown by examples were the boundary markers could not possibly be in view, but Paul still uses the expression “works” or “works of the law.” In Romans, for example, works (in the negative sense) is used in a variety of ways that sometimes includes the Mosaic legislation and sometimes it does not. Paul discusses works related to Abraham and Isaac, and they clearly lived before Moses and the boundary markers (Rom. 4; 9:10–12). Paul’s discussion of David does not focus at all on the boundary markers (Rom. 4:6–8). In Galatians, Paul indicates that both Christ and NT Christians are “under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5) even though NT Christians are no longer under the boundary-marker aspects of the law. These examples show that for Paul, “works” and “works of the law” have a works-righteousness component that is more basic than the Jewish boundary markers because he uses these expressions when boundary markers are clearly not the issue. Hence, it may be true that for some texts in Galatians the boundary markers are in focus, but Paul is concerned to show that the opponents are functionally considering them as works done within a works-righteousness soteriology.
Ephesians 2:8–10; 2 Timothy 1:8–10; Titus 3:4–7 and Works Righteousness
On the surface, Ephesians 2:8–10; 2 Timothy 1:8–10; and Titus 3:4–7 contrast a grace soteriology with a works-righteousness soteriology. However, there is not much discussion of these three texts in pro-and-con New Perspective arguments in critical/liberal scholarship. Should not these texts be part of the analysis concerning justification in Romans, Galatians, and Philippians 3? Why are they not? Because in the critical/liberal world, most scholars believe Paul is not the author of Ephesians, 2 Timothy, and Titus.
Surprisingly, many, although not all, New Perspective authors do agree that Ephesians 2:8–10; 2 Timothy 1:8–10; and Titus 3:4–7 contrast a grace soteriology with a works-righteousness soteriology (e.g., Dunn). These New Perspective authors believe that the biblical author(s) of these three texts has moved more toward a traditional-Protestant understanding of works-righteousness and past seeing works as simply Jewish boundary markers. From a traditional-Protestant perspective, these three texts are considered to be written by Paul. Hence, they dovetail nicely with the understanding of justification in Romans, Galatians, and Philippians 3.
Admitting that the author(s) of Ephesians, 2 Timothy, and Titus were aware of the concept of works righteousness creates an internal difficulty for the New Perspective relative to its view that this concept did not exist in early Judaism. Even if one assumes that these three books are not arguing explicitly against Jews or Jewish Christians, one would have to admit that the works-righteousness concept was “in the cultural air” and Christians who were interested in the OT were aware of it.
Pro-New Perspective Authors
- E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion
- James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul
- Kent L. Yinger, The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction
- N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?
- N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Anti-New Perspective Authors
- Guy P. Waters, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul: A Review and Response
- Robert J. Cara, Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism versus Reformed Covenantal Theology
- Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme
- Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification