After more than four centuries, the Lutheran (actually, Protestant) stream of scholarship had turned into a veritable Amazonian flow, impervious to both Jewish (Schechter, Montefiore, Schoeps, Sandmel) and Christian (Moore, Parkes) objections that its portrayal of Judaism was both prejudiced and inaccurate. It is a testament to Sanders's erudition (and, no doubt, to the cultural climate of the time) that he was able, with one mighty broadside, to alter the course of this stream, or at least to create a new stream in what has increasingly become something of an interpretive alluvial delta. What Sanders did was to revisit the beliefs of the broad spectrum of Second Temple and later Rabbinic Judaism by analyzing its primary texts on their own terms. His aim was explicit: "to destroy the view of Rabbinic Judaism which is still prevalent in much, perhaps most, New Testament scholarship" (p. 48). And he was, to a large extent, successful. Using the sociological categories of "getting in" and "staying in," Sanders proposed a view of Jewish belief he categorized, somewhat unhappily, with the ponderous designation "covenantal nomism." By this Sanders means:
... the view that one's place in God's plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression. ... Obedience maintains one's position in the covenant, but it does not earn God's grace as such. (pp. 75, 420 [emphasis removed]).The revolutionary significance of Sanders's proposal cannot be overestimated. By emphasizing the gracious, covenantal foundation of Jewish law-keeping, in one fell swoop he shifted the scholarly perception of the Jews' acknowledged nomism in a paradigmatic way. No longer would mainstream biblical scholarship understand Jewish law-keeping as a "legalistic"—indeed, to use terminology derived from later church history, a proto-Pelagian or, at least, semi-Pelagian—attempt to earn their standing before God. Instead, such obedience was, just as in the Book of Deuteronomy itself, understood to be their grateful response to prior grace and the means of maintaining the covenant status they had been granted antecedently by virtue of their physical descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And, if Sanders was correct, even partially so, this would necessarily have severe repercussions vis-à-vis the interpretation of Paul's letters to the Galatians and to the Romans, especially in regard to the understanding of his characteristic "doctrine" of justification by faith.
Sanders's ground-breaking work bore fruit almost immediately in what has been dubbed "The New Perspective on Paul." Despite the ubiquity of the designation, to speak of a "New Perspective" is somewhat misleading in light of the variety of perspectives covered under the term's umbrella. Sanders himself claimed that Paul, having found "salvation" in Christ, simply shifted religious systems when he rejected Jewish notions of covenant and election. Much more plausibly, scholars such as Jimmy Dunn and N. T. Wright (one could also add John Barclay, Bruce Longenecker, Richard Hays, Terence Donaldson, Douglas Campbell, Daniel Kirk, and countless others) argued that Paul's critique of his Jewish contemporaries came from a stance within Judaism. Despite the differences that mark each of these scholars' positions, their views all bear one mark of family resemblance: Paul's critique of Judaism and "Judaizing" Christianity is located primarily, not in the contrast between grace and legalism (i.e., the salvation of the individual), but in the contrast between universalism/inclusivism and particularism/ethnic exclusivism (i.e., the relation of Jews and Gentiles in the new covenant people of God).
Not surprisingly, response to Sanders's proposals has not been uniformly positive. After all, views with a pedigree such as that which the so-called "Old Perspective" has cannot die easily. And that is how it should be. It does not take a rocket scientist (or even a humble Ph.D. in New Testament) to see the consanguinity between the concerns of the New Perspective and certain trends in the thinking of dominant segments of contemporary Western culture. On the other hand, however, one should not underestimate the potentially worldview-shattering character of the New Perspective's proposals. For many who, like I, were raised in evangelical Protestantism, Paul's doctrine of justification by faith lies at the foundation of their religious identity, not only establishing their standing before God by grace alone, but also distinguishing them from other Christians, not least Roman Catholics, whose teachings they believe not only false but soteriologically dangerous. This is especially the case with confessional Christians in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, which have enshrined the teachings of Luther and Calvin (and their successors) about justification in binding doctrinal formulas. One cannot help but think that the frequent misrepresentation of the positions of such men as Wright and Dunn, and in some cases the hysterical, vitriolic, fear-mongering response to them, derives, more often than not, from misunderstanding produced by the dissonance the New Perspective causes when its strains are heard against the backdrop of a presupposed-yet-unexamined Old Perspective melody. And when academic or ecclesiastical reputations and, in certain cases, posts are at stake, the temptation is all the greater. But I digress ...
Opposition to the New Perspective has come, not surprisingly, from scholars in the Lutheran (Martin Hengel, Peter Stuhlmacher), Evangelical (Mark Seifrid), and Reformed (Guy Watters) traditions. Most important, however, have been studies of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism in which Sanders's proposal of "covenantal nomism" has been challenged. Already in 1991 Timo Laato wrote his Paulus und das Judentum in which he argued that Paul's anthropology was considerably more pessimistic than that held by his Jewish contemporaries. In 1996 Friedrich Avemarie directly challenged Sanders with the publication of his Tora und Leben, in which he contends that "covenanatal nomism" is too simplistic. Yes, Judaism held to both covenantalism and nomism, but the two were held together in unresolved tension. "Salvation," Avemarie contended, was ultimately contingent upon obedience, and hence Paul need not be reinterpreted (on this, see also Simon Gathercole's Where Is Boasting?, from 2002, which likewise emphasizes the role played by keeping the Torah in the Jews' understanding of final justification). In 1998 Timo Eskola followed with his Theodicy & Predestination in Pauline Soteriology, in which he, in good Lutheran fashion, contrasted Paul's "monergism"—i.e., salvation by God's action alone—with the Jews' "synergism"—salvation involving a concurrence of divine and human action. Finally, in 2000, Mark Elliott wrote the most significant challenge to date. In his The Survivors of Israel, Elliott points to Jewish groups for whom neither nationalistic or individualistic portraits of Sanders-like "covenant theology" will do. For such groups, there was no irrevocable national election of Israel, and so the covenant could not unambiguously be the vehicle of "salvation." Covenant, and the salvation consequent upon it, were the sole reserve of the remnant, who were marked out precisely by their obedience to the Law.
It is here that a recent blog post by my old friend Dan Wallace, entitled "Paul and Justification by Faith: The Real Jewish Evidence," comes into play. In his post Wallace writes about a paper delivered by Preston Sprinkle at November's ETS convention in Milwaukee, which was an extract from his forthcoming book, Paul and Judaism Revisited. Wallace writes:
Entitled, “Way Outside the Box: Why Paul’s Doctrine of Justification Was Risky, Offensive, and Unparalleled in Early Judaism,” Sprinkle argued, like his title suggests, that “Paul’s assertion that ‘God justifies the wicked’ would have been seen as risky, offensive, and is actually unparalleled in the world of early Judaism—yes, even among the Dead Sea Scrolls.” What a bold statement! He backs it up with some impressive evidence, too. ...
Among his many points, Sprinkle notes that in the OT God did not justify wicked people, citing, inter alia, Exod 23.7 and Isa 5.23. In my class on the exegesis of Romans, which I have taught at Dallas Seminary for the past seven years, I have argued that these two texts are key to Paul’s thinking and that the Jews of his day would have realized this. Exodus 23.7 clearly involves legal language. It is this language which lies behind Paul’s points in Rom 3.23–24 and 4.4–5. ...
Sprinkle does not develop the points of contact between these two OT passages and Romans, but he does bring in other significant texts from Second Temple Judaism to show that the OT view has continuity into the time of Paul. In particular, he interacts with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the texts he discusses are CD 1.18–21; 4.6–7 (the Damascus Document), 4QMMT 26–32 (the Halakhic Letter), and 1QS 10–11 (Community Rule). It is this latter passage that is sometimes seen as in line with Paul’s view of justification. Sprinkle gives a penetrating analysis of the text, noting major differences that have been overlooked. In particular, Paul focuses on initial justification while 1QS focuses on final justification. It is a point not to be missed. Sprinkle began the section on 1QS by asking, “does Qumran anywhere affirm that God’s initial declaration of righteousness is unilateral—based on no measure of human goodness, obedience, or godly potential?” He answers with a resounding no.
In the conclusion to Sprinkle’s paper he states plainly: “The assertion that ‘Paul’s doctrine has exactly the same shape as that of MMT’ or other documents from Qumran, as N.T. Wright thinks, simply cannot be sustained.”
It will be interesting to see the responses to Sprinkle’s forthcoming book. The debate will surely continue for some time. Meanwhile, N. T. Wright is busy producing yet another work on Paul’s understanding of justification (Paul and the Faithfulness of God). Whether evangelicals need to jettison the old perspective on Paul in toto, as if the Reformation got it all wrong as Wright seems to affirm, is still an open question for many. But Sprinkle’s treatment of the Jewish materials will surely have to be wrestled with. Perhaps Luther and the Reformers got it right after all.Perhaps the Reformers did get it right. Perhaps they didn't. Or, perhaps they both did and didn't get it right, but in different ways and at different levels of understanding. Indeed, the third of these options is what I have argued for two decades, dating back to my doctoral work at Dallas on Paul's letter to the Galatians. To argue in such a way, as I have learned from bitter personal experience, can be a professionally ruinous course of action. But, as Luther said at Worms, "I can do no other, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe." I maintain that both Sanders's view of Judaism and the "Old Perspective" view of Paul lack appropriate nuance despite the large dose of truth that characterize both. In my next post I hope to show why I believe this to be the case.