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.The issues involved in the discussion of the so-called "New Perspective on Paul" (the NPP) are exceedingly complex. I myself wrote my own doctoral dissertation on Paul's theology of justification in Galatians back in 1995 and, if anything, the heat of the debate has only escalated in the intervening years. Of one thing I am sure: scholars in the confessional Lutheran and Reformed traditions will never accept what Sanders said, and thus will never come to terms with the NPP. They simply have too much emotional capital invested in the traditional Protestant position to do so. Indeed, since such scholars are both capable and honorable, it is only this worldview-defining capital that could possibly explain their seemingly congenital inability to understand what scholars like N. T. Wright actually teach, and their consequent misrepresentation of these scholars' positions—which I have learned by bitter personal experience. For a long time I have planned to write a book on the issue, following the suggestion of my old external examiner, Steve Spencer. For now, however, I would like to point out a couple matters where I believe Sprinkle's work, not to mention that of other advocates of the "Old Perspective on Paul" (the OPP), needs nuancing and/or contextual modification.
First, as I tried to argue two decades ago, the concerns of the NPP are not incompatible with those of the OPP. Reformed writers from Carl Trueman to Guy Waters have acted as if proponents of the NPP repudiate the classic Protestant position on justification. This is simply preposterous, as Jimmy Dunn showed in a devastating response to Trueman's criticism. More recently, N. T. Wright has argued (most prominently in his recent book on Justification) from both Romans 3-4 and Ephesians 2 that the concerns of both the NPP and the OPP coalesce; indeed, the two actually depend on each other for their full force. As Wright puts it:
The problem of Genesis 11 (the fracturing of humanity) is the full outworking of the problem of Genesis 3 (sin), and the promise to Abraham is the answer to both together. Perspectives new and old sit comfortably side by side here, a pair of theological Siamese twins sharing a single heart (Justification, 97-98).Wright and Dunn certainly do argue that "the Reformation got it ... wrong," as Wallace puts it. But their mistake was not in disputing medieval Catholicism's semi-Pelagian merit theology, nor even in using Paul's letters to the Galatians and the Romans as a weapon in their arsenal against it. As Wright says over and over again, Paul would certainly have agreed with Luther and Calvin that people cannot earn their salvation through the performance of meritorious works. But—and this is the main point—such a "Pelagian" view was not the position of Paul's opponents (real or hypothetical) in either Galatians or Romans.
This means, secondly, that the Reformers and their theological heirs have erred in confusing a legitimate application or contextualization of Paul's teaching with its historical meaning. This is most apparent in what is quite possibly the Apostle's earliest extant letter, Galatians. It is here that his famous antithesis between "justification by faith in Christ/the faithfulness of Christ" and "justification by works of the law" first appears. And he uses this contrast in opposition to Jewish-Christian "agitators" who insisted that Paul's Gentile converts must undergo circumcision so as to legitimize their standing as Abraham's children. Significantly, the fundamental contrast is articulated in what ostensibly was Paul's own response to the Apostle Peter's spineless withdrawal from table fellowship with uncircumcised Gentile Christians in Antioch. These "works" which implicitly were needed for "justification" were not meritorious bits of moral striving that putatively could be used to establish one's position before God. On the contrary, these "works of the law" were actions prescribed in the Torah that were designed, first and foremost, to distinguish the Jewish people from the Gentiles and mark them as God's covenant people. And this is precisely the way they were used by Paul's actual opponents in Galatia. In response to these "troublemakers," Paul provides a finely detailed scriptural argument in Galatians 3 in which he attempts to show why Gentile converts need not adopt such "works of the Torah." Later, Galatians 5:1-6, he goes further and argues that such converts must not do so. Such a declension, implying as it would that Christ's apocalyptic achievement on the cross was not sufficient in itself to justify, would be a fatal "fall" from grace and sever the person from the lifeline that is Christ himself. It goes without saying that Paul's opponents didn't draw these implications. But he did, and both Luther and Calvin were correct when they contextualized this message to apply it to the Christian legalists of their time. But they erred in misunderstanding the historical focus of the apostle's argument. Paul's teaching in Galatians leads to another, related observation.
Third, advocates of the OPP err in understanding Paul's teaching about justification in terms of the ordo salutis rather than the historia salutis. In other words, by understanding justification to be primarily an element of the sequential application of Christ's redemption to the individual sinner, they have both decontextualized it and transformed it into a timeless (or, better, trans-temporal) theological principle. Abraham, the centerpiece of Paul's argument in both Galatians 3 and Romans 4, has been understood in this tradition to be an example drawn from the Old Testament to prove that the Jews, who believed in "justification by works of the law," were mistaken. Justification, I have often heard it said, has always been by faith. Just as we are justified by faith in Christ, so Old Testament saints were justified by anticipating the coming Messiah and trusting in the coming sacrifice for sins he would offer. The facts that the Old Testament nowhere speaks to the issue of an individual's entrance into a state of being "saved," and that no such widespread anticipation of a messianic sin-bearer can be historically verified, don't deter such theologians. (As an aside, one of the great virtues of my father as a biblical interpreter was his recognition, based not least on the Gospels' portrait of the disciples, that such a picture of the hope of Old Testament saints is pure nonsense). But they should.
However, what close exegesis of both Galatians and Romans demonstrates is that Paul clearly presents his doctrine of justification by faith as the entail of the eschatological fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham. This is especially transparent in Galatians 3:8: "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed'." This was not a timeless principle valid for the previous dispensation in which God's covenant people were defined by their physical descent from Abraham and marked out by their obedience to the Torah, not least by the physical sign of a circumcised foreskin. Indeed, this becomes clear in Galatians 3:10-14, where justification, as "the blessing of Abraham," is extended to the Gentiles by virtue of Christ's having redeemed Jewish believers ("us") by his vicarious bearing of the covenant curse on their behalf on the cross.
The same is true in Romans. This greatest of Pauline letters is usually understood, in keeping with Luther's quest to find a "gracious God," to articulate a gospel of individual salvation: both Gentiles (1:18-32) and Jews (2:1-3:9) are sinners who deserve God's wrathful condemnation and are incapable of "earning" salvation by their "works"; Christ died as a substitute in judgment for all, and hence all who exercise faith in Christ are "justified," declared to be "righteous" in God's cosmic law court. Now, there is truth in this analysis. But there are more than a few clues that Paul's main argument lies elsewhere: Paul's definition of his gospel message as pertaining to Christ's resurrection (1:4), his emphasis on being commissioned as the Apostle to the Gentiles (1:5-6), his emphasis—often thought by advocates of the OPP to be a digression—on God's faithfulness despite Israel's unfaithfulness (3:1-8), his initial reference to "justification" as the entail of the eschatological (note the temporal "but now" [nyni de] in 3:21) manifestation of God's saving covenant faithfulness ("the righteousness of God") in Christ's death (3:21-26), and especially his explicit statement that "justification by works of the law" would imply a limitation of justification to Jews (note the "or" [ē] introducing 3:29). Indeed, as Richard Hays has argued, "The driving question in Romans is not, 'How can I find a gracious God?' but 'How can we trust in this allegedly gracious God if he abandons his promises to Israel?'" (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 53). On such a reading, not only do the enigmatic chapters 9-11 come into their own, but the true nature of Paul's critique of Judaism is clarified. Their "boast"—the boast that is excluded by the "law of faith" (3:27), i.e., the Torah understood through the narratival hermeneutical grid laid bare in the apostle's recounting of the Abraham story in chapter 4—was not the crass boast of the moralist, but the boast of a people who had been given the Torah so they could be a light to the lawless Gentiles (2:17-20). But this boast was invalidated, not just in terms of individual Jews shown to be sinners in need of salvation, but by national unfaithfulness which had resulted in their experience of the covenantal curse of exile, as Paul's oft-misunderstood quotation of Isaiah 52:5 in Romans 2:24 clearly indicates.
In Paul's view, the Jews' mistake was in imagining that they could still relate to God by keeping the Torah, and that doing so would hasten the fulfillment of God's promise to the nation in Deuteronomy 30:1-3, 6:
When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you ... The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.Paul, however, believed that the promised circumcision of the heart had already occurred, and that Gentiles as well as Jews were now the recipients of it as beneficiaries of the already-inaugurated new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah (Rom 2:25-29). And thus God's promise to Abraham of a single, world-wide, sin-forgiven family had come to fruition through Christ's death and resurrection—a family whose defining characteristic is not circumcision and Torah observance, but the very same faith Abraham demonstrated when he believed God's promise and "it was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Rom 4). The Jews' pride in being Abraham's children "according to the flesh" (Rom 4:1) is thus shown to be retardataire in view of God's faithfulness to his covenant promises to Abraham. What now matters is being children of the promise, the covenant people through whom God was centripetally reversing the centrifugal movement precipitated by the apostasy of Babel narrated in Genesis 11.
One cannot emphasize enough how scandalous this message was in Paul's day, and indeed still is to the Jewish people. According to Paul, God had fulfilled the promise of Deuteronomy 30, and with it the Abrahamic Covenant as well. Yet he had done so while the vast majority of Jewish people remained in unbelief, and not as a result of the people's repentance and obedience to the Torah which Deuteronomy said would precipitate it. This fact in itself should give pause to those who too quickly want to charge the Jews of Paul's day with "legalism." And it warrants our asking on what basis the Apostle made his audacious claim. These considerations lead us to a fourth point.
Fourth, inaugurated eschatology explains Paul's focus on "initial" justification instead of the standard Jewish concern with "final justification." Although it is always precarious to make sweeping generalizations about Jewish beliefs in the Second Temple period, one thing is certain: many, if not most, Jews of the period were eagerly anticipating God's intervention to bring about the promised eschatological kingdom, at which time the faithful people of God would be vindicated and the saints who had died would be raised from the dead to experience covenant fulfillment on the earth. This, not the individual hope for "going to heaven," is the context in which we must understand the Jewish belief in "justification by works of the law." In the lawcourt metaphor, God as the Judge "justifies" or "vindicates" the faithful. He pronounces in their favor or declares them to be in the right. And the criterion of this faithfulness was, of course, obedience to the covenant stipulations laid down in the Law—even Deuteronomy 30 clearly makes such obedience the necessary evidence of the "return" to Yahweh that would come before the promised final return from exile.
Sprinkle is one of a number of scholars who has argued that Sanders's portrayal of Second Temple Judaism is far too sanguine. And in this judgment he is no doubt correct. Jewish "nomism" (religion based on keeping the law) was not as monolithic as Sanders had supposed. Indeed, despite my own sympathies with Sanders's work, years ago I argued that in key respects "legalism" was not an entirely inappropriate charge to bring against various segments of Second Temple Judaism (cf. my "No One Is Justified by Works of the Law," 326-27 n.11). Nevertheless, in large measure I would still argue that his primary thesis still stands for large swaths of Jewish belief. In particular, the context in which we must understand Jewish law-keeping—even when such observance is considered instrumental in attaining vindication at the final judgment (for example, the 1st century apocalyptic tract known as 4 Ezra)—is that of the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai and later in Moab before the people entered the promised land. It was keeping the law, of course, that demonstrated their commitment to Yahweh and faithfulness to their covenant responsibilities. Disobedience to Torah led to covenant curse and exile. Obedience would be the means by which God would renew the covenant and hasten the coming of the eschaton.
But Paul, as we have seen, will have none of it. In his view, "works of the law" cannot justify, both because such works would explicitly exclude Gentiles (3:29) and because the law can only reveal the sin of its subjects when they invariably break its rules (3:19-20). Justification by works of the law, then, not only excludes Gentiles; it excludes Jews as well. Instead, God is one who "justifies the ungodly" (4:5), a clear polemic against those Jews who were tempted to "explain" God's choice of Abraham either by some virtue found in the patriarchs or Israel's foreseen obedience to the Torah. It is also a deliberately scandalous assertion on Paul's part. The Torah itself forbids a judge to "justify the wicked" (Exod 23:7), and Sprinkle is correct to note that no Jew would have followed Paul in his contention. The reason for this is a simple one. The Jews consistently understood "justification" or "vindication" as a verdict pronounced at the last judgment.
Paul, however, characteristically brings this eschatological verdict forward into the present, and ties it to faith and to, as Luther rightly emphasized, to faith alone. Not only does this apply to Gentiles, but to Jews as well, who must exercise faith in Christ to be considered justified, sin-forgiven members of God's covenant people (Gal 2:15-16; Rom 3:22-23, 30) [As another aside, this fact speaks deafeningly against the views of such forebears of the NPP as William Wrede and Krister Stendahl, who considered "justification by faith" to be merely a theological expedient designed to place Gentiles on equal footing with Jews in the people of God.]
What accounts for Paul's innovation? In a word, the resurrection of Christ. As Seyoon Kim argued three decades ago in a magisterial Manchester thesis, the Apostle's Damascus Road encounter with the risen Lord not only turned his life upside down, but also had a definitive, generative effect on his interpretation of Israel's scriptures and the course of salvation history. The resurrection of Christ, to Paul, was his installment as universal Lord in fulfillment of the Davidic promise of Psalm 2:7 (Rom 1:4). Believers in Christ, both Jews and Gentiles, are already accounted "righteous" because he "was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification" (Rom 4:25). As Davidic Messiah and promised seed of Abraham, Jesus of Nazareth acted as a representative figure (nowhere made more explicit than in the marvelously profound Rom 5:12-21, where his achievement on the cross is set in contrast to the devastating sin of the first Adam). In his resurrection, God not only inaugurated the hoped for "age to come," bringing its promised blessings to bear already in the midst of the present age. The resurrection also marked God's faithfulness to his promises to Israel. Jesus, as the true Israelite, is now the one around whom the true people of God, the eschatological people of God promised to Abraham, drawn from "many nations," would be drawn. Faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ unites the believer with him. They are thereby reckoned to have died with him, and hence receive the benefits accruing from it. Likewise, they are reckoned to have been raised with him, and thereby share in the vindicating verdict ("justification") the resurrection signified.
Sprinkle is correct that this theological structure is a theological novum not shared by Paul's Jewish contemporaries. They indeed had no corresponding notion of an anticipatory, definitive present justification, let alone one open to Gentiles and mediated through faith alone. But this does not mean that their problem was an explicitly "legalistic" desire to merit justification through law-keeping. What Paul did was to categorically deny the soteriological significance of the Mosaic covenant in view of its eschatological supercession by the fulfillment of the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants. As the Apostle argued clearly in Galatians 3, the Torah, understood as the Mosaic covenant charter, had run its course and served its (negative) preparatory purpose, only to be made redundant by the Christ event. Henceforth, as Paul saw it, any attempt to relate to God on its basis was futile, misguided, and destined to bring upon the "worker" the "wrath" the Torah inevitably brings on the head of the law-breaker (e.g., Gal 3:10; Rom 4:15). In other words, Paul's critique of his Jewish contemporaries was rooted in eschatology.
Indeed, the Apostle retained an entirely Jewish belief in a final judgment in which the vindicating/acquitting verdict is issued in accordance with works (Rom 2:6-16). The extent to which this teaching is incomprehensible, if not offensive, to many proponents of the OPP is evident in the still-common belief that Paul's argument in these verses is hypothetical. Paul, such scholars argue, presents a general principle that he later claims is never realized in practice (Rom 3:9-20). Such an interpretation, however, is born less of exegesis than it is of theological expedience. Later in Romans 2, the Apostle clearly writes of such people when he speaks of those whose obedience demonstrates a circumcised heart and "reckons" them to be "circumcised," even if their foreskin remained intact. For Paul, the present verdict, pronounced on the basis of faith in Christ, is definitive, and will certainly be confirmed at the last assize when the lives of the presently justified are examined (cf. Rom 8:29-30, where all the presently "justified" are guaranteed to be ultimately "glorified"). The missing element here, of course, is the Holy Spirit, as the Apostle succinctly argues in Romans 8:1-4. Much more could be said here. Suffice it to say, however, that the Reformed theologian has nothing to fear from Paul's very Jewish belief in a final judgment, or indeed a final "justification," issued in accordance with "works."
The upshot of this survey is this: the NPP, or at least certain versions of it, is not incompatible with the primary concerns of the OPP. Indeed, far from being something to fear, the NPP provides the nuances necessary to save the valid concerns of the OPP from the potentially fatal charge of theological anachronism. I am indeed "favorably disposed" to the NPP, and I have paid dearly for that disposition. I am also, despite this fact, a Reformed theologian. But I am a Reformed theologian who remains committed to the historical-critical method. Indeed, it is only the historical method that can protect the Reformed faith from the ossification that inevitably occurs when its 16th and 17th century confessions are allowed to dictate what the text must mean. Classic Protestantism was marked by the slogan, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. The Reformed church must always be reforming as its understanding of God's Word advances. We do well if we take that admonition to heart.