A new perspective on justification – a verdict?

Last year, I wrote about my intention to study the new perspective on Paul (NPP). At the time I stated that I would write a conclusion based on my studies. So here I am, finally fulfilling my own promise, aware that there are many more promises that I have yet to keep.

So what is the verdict? Well, I would say I am certainly better informed than I was. Though when I think through how to summarise the NPP, I don’t think I was terribly far wrong in my initial assessment last year (the link is above). Of course, there is much more flesh on those bare bones. If anything, the majority of what I have learned has been what is regarded as the traditional reformed view (or ‘old perspective’). I was introduced to the idea of imputation which I have never heard preached from any church I have been to. If anything, given my own personal links to Durham and that of the NPP (James Dunn is a professor at my alma mater and Tom Wright was bishop for most of my time there) I suspect that I may well have been exposed to the NPP without it being spelled out as such. The pastor at my old church, KCD did his doctoral thesis on Galatians shortly after the interest in the NPP began to take root in academic circles.

Instead of thinking only about justification, the thrust of the NPP is really more holistic than that. So to talk of a ‘new perspective on justification’, as I did in both my original post, is really rather to miss the point. The view of justification is a consequence of the wider context of Paul’s theology. Though I do find it interesting that in looking so hard at Paul, some sight of James seems to have been lost. When I was growing up in a christian home, school and church, the discussion had been about answering the prima facie case of the contradiction between Paul and James. Though a new perspective on Paul ought rightly to focus on Paul’s ideas, it did strike me as odd that one could overlook James and still arrive at a well-rounded, New Testament theology of justification.

The approach of the NPP is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. In continuing the ideas of the Reformation, the idea of accepting a thesis on the basis of tradition is thrown out. In this case, even some of the conclusions of the reformers themselves! What was disappointing about much of the reaction to the NPP appealed only to tradition rather than properly engaging with the methodology.

To my understanding of it, there are two key points around which the whole debate turns. Firstly, what did Paul (and for that matter, James) mean when they referred to “the law”  – was it a kind of legalism or was the Torah being used as a means of ethnic identification? Secondly, what did Paul mean by his use of the cognate words ‘dikaiosyne’ (noun) and ‘dikaioo’ (verb) – normally translated as ‘righteousness’ and ‘justify’ respectively.

To the first point, I have found the argument of the ethnic badge persuasive though not compelling. The best counter to this argument seems to have come from Don Carson’s Justification and Variegated Nomism, which I have not yet had an opportunity to read. From what others have said about it, he seems to advocate that 1st century Jewish belief was so varied that to speak of covenantal nomism (as advocated by Sanders and other NPP scholars) is too narrow a focus.

As brief and unsatisfactory as that previous answer was, I could not hope to do any better in answering the second question. While I, along with both the traditionalists and NPP proponent James Dunn, do not find Wright’s argument for translating ‘dikaiosyne theou’ as ‘God’s covenantal faithfulness’ convincing, there is a good case (depending on how you answered the first question) for supposing that covenantal faithfulness is an aspect of God’s righteousness.

If this study has shown me anything, it has highlighted my own muddled thinking on the subject matter. Before starting this investigation, I was quite happy to think of justification and sanctification as being synonymous with salvation. I am quite happy to be much the wiser now. That said, I am all the more conscious of how much I have yet to properly understand, both in the core texts themselves and of how those of alternative views have arrived at their interpretations. I could double the number of books to read on the subject, including Carson’s 2 volume tome mentioned above, Alister McGrath’s history of justification, studies by Simon Gathercole and much more on the Eastern Orthodox idea of theosis. However, I could all too easily disappear down the rabbit hole of justification. There are plenty more aspects of theology and its practical applications which I am woefully ignorant of.

So I intend to leave justification there for now. For my next area of study, I plan on staring into the depths and looking at the theology of hell. I’ll write more about my plan on that later.

One response to “A new perspective on justification – a verdict?

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