Romans and the New Perspective

Polhill has a brief discussion of the New Perspective on Paul which packs a lot of the developments in Pauline theology into just about a page of text (P&HL, 296-97).  Since Romans is such an important book for understanding Paul’s theology, this is a good place to pause in our survey of Paul’s letters and think about what effect the New Perspective has had on our perceptions of Faith and Works, justification and other classic Pauline topics.

The so-called New Perspective on Paul offered a critique of the traditional view of Paul’s doctrine of justification and generated a fierce debate on both sides of the issue.  Most of the writers who have challenged the established view of Pauline reconciliation have emphasized reconciliation as only one of many metaphors which Paul uses in order to describe salvation.  E. P. Sanders, for example, does not want to privilege any one metaphor as the main or controlling idea for Paul’s soteriology, whether that metaphor is justification or not.

The core of Sanders’ argument is that Jews of the Second Temple period believed that they were a part of the covenant because of God’s election, and they remained part of the covenant on the basis of their good works.  But even here it is not complete and totally adherence to every part of the Law, since no one could keep everything perfectly.  Sanders therefore suggests that there was a sub-set of the Law which functioned as “boundary markers,” things which could function as defining who was “in” the covenant and who was “not in.”  Sanders’ conception of Second Temple period Judaism under the rubric of “covenantal nomism” is an application of these last two emphases.  Election is what gets one into the Covenant, if you are Israel then you are “in”; but what is it that maintains that relationship with God?  Can someone find themselves outside of the covenant?

Most of the literature of this period asks this sort of question: What is it that defines “in the covenant.”  In Maccabees it is Sabbath, circumcision and dietary Laws which are clear boundaries; in Jubilees and 1 Enoch, the Qumran literature proper Calendar is included as a boundary marker, in Sirach it is a life of wisdom that marks out the elect.

With this in mind, one could argue that Romans or Galatians does not say that Jesus ended the Law, i.e., no one has to keep the Law anymore at all.  Rather, Jesus ended the “boundary markers” which defined who was in or out of the covenant.  Circumcision no longer was the sign of the covenant; the day of worship was not longer an issue; food taboos were no longer clear signs of right-standing with God.  I am inclined to think that the calendar issues found in much of Second Temple period literature are behind some of Paul’s statements in Col 2:16, for example.  The old boundary markers are done away; the people are God are to be defined as those who are “in Christ.”

What then does this do to the classic reformation formulation of Justification by Faith? Perhaps nothing, the doctrine may still be a correct inference from scripture. But if justification is simply one metaphor for salvation among many, perhaps the emphasis placed on justification as the central theme of Paul’s theology is over-played.  I am not convinced it is, but the door is now open to other ideas from Paul which have been under-played for the last 400 years.

19 thoughts on “Romans and the New Perspective

  1. I would say that the ‘Justification’ might be a broad enough term for Paul’s mission, but certainly not the end-all metaphor for all of Paul’s teachings. Concerning your point, “With this in mind, one could argue that Romans or Galatians does not say that Jesus ended the Law, i.e., no one has to keep the Law anymore at all.” I would revert back to what Jesus said about his own minstry, “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.” (Matt. 5:17). He seems not to say ‘the law is gone’ but rather the law is found in Christ, the fulfillment of the law… If you want to know what the law says, read the Bible in the context of the coming of Christ, where the law has its uses until Christ fulfills that use, and presents grace to sinners. What do u guys think?

  2. Justification is close, but is still too narrow of a definition.

    To start, I see why Romans is such a good source for evangelistic verses. ‘The Romans Road’ uses this gold mine of verses. It follows the basic three point outline:
    1. Everyone is dead in sin. (1:18- 2:29; 3:1-20, 23; 6:23)
    2. Salvation is found in Christ. (1:1-7; 3:21-22, 24-26; 4:1-25; 5:1-21)
    3. Eternal life is ones reward. (5:21; 6:22-23; 8:18-27)

    However, much of the rest of Romans seems to be instruction on living a proper life in Christ. (6; 7; 12; 13; 14; 15)

    Based upon the general outline of Romans, I would not define Paul by ‘justification’ alone- that’s only half the story. A very large portion is dedicated to right living in Christ. Romans is a general outline of the Christian faith- which we get from Paul’s teachings. The theme for Paul is right relationship with God, in which justification is only the beginning.

    Like what Zakk pointed out above- Christ is a fulfillment of the Law, not a replacement. Romans teaches what that fulfillment is to look like, starting with justification in Christ and working itself out in Christ-centered living.

  3. I believe Rom. 10:1-4 is key to understanding what is going on regarding this covenantal nomism which Sanders presents

    “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Rom 10:1-4).

    In keeping with the whole argument of Romans (especially considering the example of Abraham in ch. 4) Christ was indeed the ‘end of the law.’ No one could keep the law perfectly; in fact Israel failed time and again necessitating a future new covenant drawn out in the OT (Jer. 33). Therefore people could indeed find themselves outside the covenant as is reflected in Rom. 10:1-3. Israel’s focus was wrong. They were zealous, yet they missed the point, God’s righteousness. Abraham was Paul’s key example in this case (Rom. 4). Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness and this was before the law existed. Faith was the requirement. Likewise in Jeremiah 33 one can see that the new covenant will be one in which circumcision is of the heart, not the outward physical workings of the law. Jesus did in fact bring an end to the law, but not to the covenant with his people. A more crucial issue in my mind is: where to the Gentiles, during this time of Grace, fit in with the new covenant? We are clearly not under law, but did the termination/fulfillment of the law (through Christ’s act on the cross) commence a new covenant in which we can also partake? Or is the new covenant yet to be commenced when this dispensation comes to an end?
    As Polhill established, there is much that is being argued and much room for future discussion regarding Paul’s view of the law.

    • Excellent comment, Caleb. Let me ask, though, how you see the New Covenant. You say: “Jeremiah 33 one can see that the new covenant will be one in which circumcision is of the heart.” Is this what happens “in Christ” and as described by Paul in Romans? If so, I wonder if there is not room for a form of the Law in the present dispensation since we participate in the NC. Jeremiah does not seem to envision an “end of the Law,” or a “fulfillment of the law,” etc. If we are under the NC, what are the “requirements” of the covenant?

  4. In Romans 7:4 Paul writes, “You died to the power of the law when you died with Christ.” Before this brief verse Paul gives an illustration to demonstrate his point. He makes a point that a women can not re-marry if her husband is alive, because she is bond by law. However, she can re-marry if her husband dies.

    Polhill makes reference to Johnny C. (John Calvin), who himself makes a distinction between the ceremonial and the moral aspects of the law, (296). When Christ died we were justified in God’s eye, and made whole. The moral side of the law still lives on. We all do our best to abide by the 10 commandments, because it is morally right. But we do not have to preform the ceremonial acts for instance, the sacrificing a bull.

    • Ok, Jed….you said “We all do our best to abide by the 10 commandments”, why do you pick these? To quote Jesus, he summed up the whole law in two commands — love your God and Love your neighbor. Those ARE the ten commandments – the first four are “love your God” and the last six are “love your neighbor.” If you try to “keep the ten” are you not trying to “keep the whole law?”

      How do you decide which “moral laws” are still valid? If you do not set the whole thing aside in Christ, it seems like yo have to have some sort of principle for deciding which you think are still applicable, otherwise you need to convert to Judaism.

      • I don’t think that Jed is too far off on this. I think that there is still some requirement dealing with social injustice. Paul commands people to flee from immorality in both Timothys. IF we are flee then it would seem that there is a moral code we should be heading for.

      • Technically, he said these were the greatest commands, not as much a summary. But that is just splitting hairs.

    • Where is our morality derived from? Did we suddenly become morally conscious when the Law was given or has there always been an inner sense of morality. There are a ton of good people in this world who have no regard for Christianity, or much of any religion, much less the Ten Commandments.

      What was the purpose of the Law? Was it to put our sense of morality into perspective? I think that the Law dealt less with morals, or moral consciousness, and more with accountability, more with covenant.

      I don’t not steal from my work, lie about whether I did or didn’t do something, or pull the trigger to commit murder because it is against the Ten Commandments. I just know quite frankly that these things are wrong to do. There is no benefit in them, no logical implication of better results with out harm or consequence to myself or another. I think C.S. Lewis used a similar argument. Morality has always been there.

      We died to the Law because the Law was what held us in death. I think it’s rather incorrect for Christians to try and live ‘by the Law’ or ‘by the Ten Commandments’ because the Law’s purpose was not a guideline to good morals. Sure, it fleshes it out fairly well, but these things we already know. That moral consciousness is already there.

      And Jesus sort of did say that “love your God – love your neighbor” summed up the Law in Matthew 22:40, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

  5. Wouldn’t it make sense if the Judaic people were not “in” because they broke the law frequently? And what about God fearing gentiles? Is it the rituals of the law that define the law or is it the concepts? I would think that the concept mentioned by P. Long above would cover this. Namely in that loving God and your neighbor covers the entire span of the law. If this is so, then why did the God fearing gentiles not be considered part of the elect?

    • Mat said, “Wouldn’t it make sense if the Judaic people were not “in” because they broke the law frequently?” That is exactly the point, they are “in” because of the electing grace of God, the same grace that maintains them in the covenant if they make their best effort.

      Try to to think anachronistically, the Jews of the First Temple (pre 586 BC) are not the Jews of AD 30. Covenant Nomism (as Sanders describes it) only applies to the Second Temple, and then only really to the 200 or so years prior to Christ through the fall of Jerusalem.

  6. We all have a choice if we want to except God or not. Yes, He knows who is already going to receive Him and who is not, but the choice is still ours since we do not know for sure which one we are going to choose. It may not sound like God has given us a free will, but He has. But I think that Justification by faith is the way to God. We know that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and we need God. That is the way that we get to God. Yes, after we come to Christ there are things that need to change in our life, but that is not what gets us to heaven. God does not care about our works, yes, He wants us to change and live our lives for Him, but when it comes down to it, they do not matter. God wants us to put our trust in Him and Him alone.

  7. P. Long says this: “With this in mind, one could argue that Romans or Galatians does not say that Jesus ended the Law, i.e., no one has to keep the Law anymore at all. Rather, Jesus ended the “boundary markers” which defined who was in or out of the covenant.”

    Now, having done a ridiculous paper about Ephesians 2, I find a distinct similarity between this concept and Eph. 2.14ff. “For he himself is our peace, who had made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” Now the idea behind the Greek word translated ‘abolishing’ is to nullify. The fact is not that the Law was destroyed, but that those responsible for following it were no longer to be held under it’s authority.

  8. Once again, since I am posting late, I don’t have a ton of new information to add, but I do agree with much of what I see and I like it. The whole idea of Christ ending the “boundary markers” of the law, but did not do away with the law is a good explanation which is easy for me to understand.

    It appears towards the end of the blogs we were getting close to predestination or free will debate with words such as “Freewill” and “elect” being tossed around. That would have made for interesting discussion.

    back to topics more related to the post though. “IF we are flee then it would seem that there is a moral code we should be heading for.” This is logical thinking done right. Phil. 4:8 ” 8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”…This points at a moral code as well.

    I agree with Shaun

    • apparently my formatting got screwed up…the “I agree with Shaun” part is supposed to precede the first quote where I quoted from Shaun’s post

  9. After reading the verse that Caleb wrote down, Rom. 10:1-4, I think that it is absolutely absurd to think that Christ was not the end of the law. It just makes sense! God has said to us what He wants to say. I just don’t understand why we have to continually question the obvious. Anyways, after talking with my husband a little, he commented that faith in God, like others have already mentioned, has always been the way to salvation, and that everything else is extra-curricular. If a child can understand and accept Christ into their heart, with such a simple understanding, why can’t we? I understand that it is good, and that God wants us to read and learn His word, but I think that theologians just want to make things more confusing for the rest of us.

  10. I agree completely with Elyse! As I was reading through these posts I had kind of this web idea going on in my mind… things being connected and interwoven and just kind of jumbled. Then I got to elyse’s post and I agree so much. Now not to get all sunday school but one of the first verses we learn (at least in my church) is John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave is one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It doesn’t say whoever believes in God and has their theology figured out and all of this “extra-curricular” (as elyse put it) stuff, they are the ones that get eternal life. Sometimes I think we just make things way more complicated that they really are or ever have to be.

  11. Amen, Caleb.

    Ben said that justification is only half the story, and the other is right living in Christ. Isn’t that the “two-handed” tradition of justification and sanctification? Which always has and continues to make a lot of sense to me…

    P. Long said, “The core of Sanders’ argument is that Jews of the Second Temple period believed that they were a part of the covenant because of God’s election, and they remained part of the covenant on the basis of their good works.” I don’t think that’s inconsistent with the Roman Catholic doctrine that God saves us by grace, and then we stay in a state of grace based upon our works; in fact, they look pretty similar to me. Maybe Luther wasn’t so dumb after all…

    Regarding discussions about what is moral/ceremonial law, would it be a fair definition to say that commands which precede the establishment of ceremonial law in the nation of Israel are likely moral in nature (this would include the Ten Commandments). It also seems a fairly basic application of biblical exegesis to say that any command which is given in the OT and repeated in the NT is moral rather than ceremonial, whereas those commands that are given only in the context of the nation of Israel and not echoed elsewhere in Scripture are likely to be ceremonial. Is that an oversimplification?

  12. Many of the Laws in the Old testement were to set the nation of Isreal apart from the rest of the nations so that they would be different. The same is what Paul is trying to do with the different churches. Each church needs a new culture that is set apart in order to function in a way that is honoring to God.

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