Thursday, October 27, 2005

Carson and Moo on New Perspectivism

Here are some of the comments of D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, from their recently released An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), on the subject of New Perspectivism:

"There were, in fact, many different Roman Catholic perspectives [on justification], as there were many different nuances in the Reformers' viewpoints - especially when we consider the so-called Radical Reformation....the general Reformation tendency to view the first-century Judaism which Jesus criticized and with which Paul interacted as legalistic became deeply embedded in New Testament scholarship of all varieties - including much traditional Roman Catholic scholarship....But in 1977 a book was published that was destined to change the landscape dramatically. E.P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism marks a watershed in interpretations of Judaism as a backdrop for Paul's theology. What Sanders argued (at least in the main) was not new, but the time was apparently ripe for a sea change in the way New Testament scholars viewed first-century Judaism....Essentially, Sanders claims that the traditional view of first-century Judaism as a legalistic religion is wrong....As Sanders put it, Jews did not do the law to 'get in' [the covenant] (which would be legalism) but to 'stay in' ('nomism')....Among other points, Sanders argued that Paul rejected covenantal nomism because of his 'exclusivist soteriology': since salvation was, by definition, to be found in Christ alone, the law and its underlying covenant could not be a means of salvation. Most scholars, even those who agreed with Sanders' portrayal of first-century Judaism, were not satisfied with this response....[James D.G.] Dunn was the first to use the language of 'new perspective' to describe the impact of Sanders' view of Judaism on Pauline studies...Essentially, Dunn claims that what Paul opposes is the tendency of the Jews to confine salvation to their own nation. It is ethnic exclusivism, not personal legalism, that Paul finds wrong with Judaism....[According to Dunn] The phrase 'works of the law' [in passages like Romans 3:20] cannot be reduced to the simple 'works,' as the Reformers did. The 'law' in the phrase is the Jewish Torah; and what Paul signifies by the phrase is Torah-faithfulness - and Torah-faithfulness understood as a means of setting Jews off from all other people....The Jewish claim Paul opposes in Romans 3:20 and other such verses is not, then, that a person can be justified by what he or she does ('works'), but the typically Jewish claim that a person is justified by maintenance of covenant status through adherence to Torah....Of course, scholars who might generally be categorized as favoring the 'new perspective' differ considerably on their interpretations of specific texts and theological issues....As we have seen, covenantal nomism and the reinterpretation of Paul's theology that ensued have quickly become the dominant force in academic studies - so much so that observers speak of a 'paradigm shift' in Pauline interpretation. Nevertheless, ever since the publication of Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism, isolated voices have been raised in protest against one or more elements of the new paradigm. And in recent years, these voices have swelled to a chorus. As Charles H. Talbert put it, 'As many Pauline scholars celebrate the paradigm shift associated with Sanders' work, another shift of equal import seems to be occurring.'...There is no doubt but that traditional interpretations of Paul have focused on questions of anthropology at the expense of salvation-history. Nevertheless, Sanders' interpretation of Judaism and the 'new perspective' is an over-reaction in the other direction....Recent study is revealing the complexities of Second Temple Judaism and the divergent theological viewpoints and perspectives found in the material. Sanders himself admitted that the late-first-century Jewish apocalyptic book 4 Ezra did not fit the covenantal nomism paradigm; and it is likely that the book offers a viewpoint that existed in the time of Paul....the two strands of soteriological teaching - salvation by election and salvation by 'recompense' - run side by side in rabbinic literature as two alternative schemes. And other scholars have argued that several Jewish writings from the New Testament period lack the undergirding covenantal structure that Sanders claims to be omnipresent....the New Testament [suggests the same]...[as the disputes between the Qumran covenanters and the Pharisees show] for many Jewish groups in Paul's day, national election had been replaced by a form of individual election. And one's elect status was determined on the basis of adherence to the Torah as interpreted and practiced by the particular community. For such groups, 'getting in' is not simply a matter of God's grace revealed in the covenant. More is involved, and at least some of that 'more' appears to involve human works....first-century Judaism was synergistic...In practice, then, Jews were saved through both grace and works. And it is just this synergism that Paul seems to be attacking in a number of passages. As one of the conclusions in the most comprehensive review of covenantal nomism to date has it, 'The category of covenantal nomism cannot itself accomplish what Sanders wants it to accomplish, viz. serve as an explanatory bulwark against all suggestions that some of this literature embraces works-righteousness and merit theology, precisely because covenantal nomism embraces the same phenomena.'...Rather than taking 'works' in passages such as Romans 4, 9, and 11 to be an abbreviation for 'works of the law,' we should rather see 'works of the law' as a subset of the more general 'works.'...Ultimately, therefore, while the Reformers may have missed some of the salvation-historical nuances and implications of Paul's argument, they were right to discern in Paul a key antithesis between human doing and human believing as the means of accessing God's salvation....To be justified is primarily to be put in right relationship with God. The consequence of that justifying action is, of course, that the person enters into the people of God. But to make the latter primary is to miss the emphasis in Paul's own writings on the primacy of the question of the sinful human being faced with a wrathful God. Luther's own experience led him to find in this issue the heart of Paul's gospel. And he was right to do so. Luther, of course, also made justification by faith the center of Pauline and New Testament theology. Here we may not agree with him; while justification by faith is a critical doctrine for Paul, guarding the grace and power of the gospel from any kind of legalistic or syncretistic modification, it probably cannot be elevated to the status of the central New Testament or even Pauline doctrine. But he was right to single out the doctrine as a critical one for Paul; and recent scholarship has tended to emphasize that, contrary to advocates of the new perspective, justification by faith was an important component of Paul's gospel from the beginning." (pp. 375-385)