Monday, December 8, 2008

The heart of Romans: justification by faith

The other day a colleague proffered the view that ‘justification by faith’ is not the heart of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. That and an opportunity to read a paper on some related matters got me thinking about the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul. In this new perspective - as I understand it – Paul’s gospel message is primarily that Gentiles as well as Jews are saved. Theologically this involved Paul arguing with Jewish Christians reluctant to fully accept Gentile Christians that the works of the law cannot save them, only faith (see especially Romans, Galatians). Exegetically the new perspective proposes that ‘works of the law’ mostly mean ‘badges of Jewish identity’ such as circumcision, and that ‘faith’ primarily means ‘the faith, or faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ rather than ‘(my personal, individual decision to have) faith in Jesus Christ’. In this perspective the gospel message is not understood - pace Luther and the Reformation - as primarily a message of salvation from sin, where sin includes attempts to please God through obedience to the law of Moses, and salvation is accessible through faith in Jesus Christ. In a phrase, justification by faith is no longer the heart of Romans. A possible alternative phrasing of the heart of Romans would be: God’s grace extends to the Gentiles.

There are some strengths to the New Perspective which I appreciate: it makes good sense of Romans 9-11, for example, as a reassurance to Jews that God has extended his grace, not transferred his grace to the Gentiles. Arguably this is better than the Lutheran approach to Romans in which chapters 9-11 seem at best an appendix and at worst a backtracking on Paul’s part from his main thesis of ‘justification by faith’.

But my reflections this past week have been against rather than for the New Perspective. Now I think there is an exegetical case against the New Perspective, especially through (a) reading Romans 1-3 slowly and seeing the problem stated to which ‘justification by faith’ is the solution; the problem being every person’s rebellion against God (‘sin’) and not over confident Jewish identity; and (b) reading Romans and Galatians in the context of the Old Testament, including passages such as the Old Testament reading for yesterday, Isaiah 40:1-11, where sin is disobedience to the detail of the law and not just the badge of identity stuff! But my recent reflections have flowed from two fascinating books I have been reading: Richard Swinburne’s Was Jesus God? and Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence: Gillian Rose’s Reception and Gift of Faith [the late Gillian Rose was a leading British philosopher who was baptised a Christian on her deathbed – Andrew Shanks explains her ‘dense’ writing for lesser mortals]. Each of these books makes the philosophic case for Christianity, and it’s from that perspective that I see weakness in the New Perspective.

From a philosophic perspective the point of Christianity is that it offers a unique interpretation of life. Gillian Rose, for example, though a Jew, converted to Christianity because she understood that it told the truth about life in the way that neither Judaism nor … anything else did. I suggest that uniqueness is the resolution of the problem created by sin – that is the problem of broken relationship between God and humanity, between humans, and within each human being. In no other faith or philosophy does God take up human life in order to mend the brokenness of sin, nor is God wounded and killed in those other ways in order that we might be healed and live. The weakness of the New Perspective is that, intentionally or unintentionally, it casts the problem of humanity in a narrow framework of racial division. But the problem of humanity is much bigger than that, and is foremost a problem of division between God and humanity. This division needs more than the mere faithfulness of Jesus Christ as a wonderful example to overcome it: it requires a propitiatory and/or expiatory act (Romans 3:25 – translations use both ‘–iatory’ words).

Without this act of atonement has Christianity anything to offer not already available in Judaism, or later available in Islam? Without such an act of atonement has any religion a plausible solution to human sin not also available to morally well-intentioned atheists? The New Perspective rightly corrects a number of imbalances in our understanding of ancient Judaism, and challenges some presumptive prejudices in Christian thinking about modern Judaism. But pressed too far the New Perspective has potential to constrain Jesus and his interpreter Paul to a gospel which is indistinct from Judaism, with the later distinctiveness between Judaism and Christianity itself a resort to racial stereotype: Jews and Gentiles do not mix!

So, I think that ‘justification by faith’ (Romans 5) is indeed the heart of Romans. For each human to be included in the family of God there needs first to be a justification by God, declaring us to be righteous. Our response to this can be refusal. Or it can be acceptance (i.e. ‘faith’).

This approach is, naturally, very Anglican for we understand the importance of personal faith only too well: without faith in each participant at the eucharist there is no real presence of Christ. The ‘faith of Christ’ is not all that matters: ‘feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving’.

14 comments:

Doug Chaplin said...

Peter, I would say that NPP is a range of views on Paul and embraces some relatively diverse thinkers, whose only point of agreement is that Paul was not a sixteenth century Protestant and Second Temple Jews were not sixteenth century Catholics.

If I find time I will try to write something more on this, but for me the heart if Paul's contrast between where we find the pattern of faithfulness, in Torah, which sets out a faithful life, or in Jesus who lives one. Torah coes with a curse, which also cursed Jesus. Jesus pattern of faithfulness is recognised and vindicated by God who overturns the judgement of Torah in the resurrection, showing that he and his faithfulness are the way to life. There's a lot more to it than that, but that is, in my view, the engine driving the whole.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Doug
I agree that the NPP is a range of views and I should have acknowledged that in my post.
But might it be also true to say that the NPP embraces thinkers who agree that justification by faith is not the heart of Romans?

Doug Chaplin said...

Hmm … I'd say that's true if you mean by justification what the reformers mean by it. I'm not sure that it wouldn't be possible for an NPP adherent to argue the centrality of justification by faith meaning something significantly different by it.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Doug
True, depending how we define things, we could all posit justification by faith as the centre of Romans.
But then my starting point was a conversation with a scholarly colleague, aware of all these issues, who does not think justification by faith is the centre of Romans!

Anonymous said...

Peter, do you know the Carson-edited collection on 'Variegated Nomism' (2 vols)?
Paul Helm has a lot to say on his site, too, about Wright and his understanding of 'justification' and sanctification.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
No, I do not know that collection - I have read very little on the NPP!

Doug Chaplin said...

The best guide from a reformed and a selective appreciation of NPP is probably Michael Bird's book The Saving Righteousness of God (if you can bear to read an Aussie). I reviewed this on my blog. I don't rate the collection of essays on Paul and Variegated Nomism anonymous recommends. Some of the essays in Vol I are good. However, Carson is so against NPP, he even ignores what his own selected essayists writes in order to pretend that they support his dogmatic position, even when they are either more nuanced,, or even favourable, towards NPP. My reading of the book was that the biblical scholars he drew on were overall more favourable to NPP than not. He and essayist in Vol II, tend to treat them as having disproved it.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Doug
I shall order the Michael Bird book.
It might be a bit rich to have an Aussie teach me how to play cricket (though I concede that generally Aussies do know how to play the game), but I am happy to sit at their feet theologically!!

Anonymous said...

Carson's volumes are referenced here: http://www.amazon.com/Justification-Variegated-Nomism-vol-Paradoxes/dp/0801027411

Carson is certainly opposed to the 'NPP' - but so too are Douglas Moo, Stephen Westerholm and a host of others. Even among the (not so) newer theorists (Dunn, Wright), I just don't think Galatians and Romans can be read the way they do in any natural way.

Anonymous said...

It should be added that Vol. 1 of 'Justification and Variegated Nomism' included essays by a number of scholars who are not evangelicals of even Christians:

D.A. Carson: Introduction - Daniel Falk: Psalms and Prayers - Craig Evans: Scripture-Based Stories - Peter Enns: Expansions of Scripture - Philip Davies: Didactic Stories - L. D. Hurst: Apocalyptic - Robert A. Kugler: Testaments - Donald E. Gowan: Wisdom - Paul Spilsbury: Josephus - Philip Alexander: The Tannaitic Literature - M. McNamara: The Targums - David Hay: Philo - Marcus Bockmuehl: The Dead Sea Scrolls - Mark Seifried: zadaq, zedaqa, and hazadiq in the Hebrew Bible and in Palestinian Judaism - Roland Deines: The Pharisees - D. A. Carson: Conclusion

If it's just a matter of surveying the terrain of 1st century JudaismS, then obviously a wide range of ideas may emerge. But Vol. 2 is specifically about 'The Paradoxes of Paul' and asks, inter alia, whether Sanders has understood him rightly. The consensus is: not really.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Peter - here's a whole bunch of mp3's on tne NPP you can listen to while you sunbathe on Tahunanui Beach after your Christmas lunch!

http://www.theopedia.com/New_Perspectivism

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
Thanks for your posts.
I wonder if I will get an MP3 player for Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Peter: aiteite kai dothesetai soi!

Until then, you'll have to download and drag your laptop to the beach. On the NPP generally, I haven't read Douglas Moo's commentary on Romans but an Orthodox friend praises it highly. I have read a lot of Dunn on Romans (WBC) but wonder if he isn't overdoing it.

+Brian C said...

'I wonder if I will get an MP3 player for Christmas!'

Not from us - this year!

Your parents.