John 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 (Paul and his Letters, 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 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.