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’.