Revisiting an old “kingdom-gospel” argument of mine

Years ago I was fairly hard-core New Perspective on Paul.  I don’t think several forms of NPP necessarily led to Tridentine Catholicism, but it is certainly a move away from some Reformation teachings.  Obviously, I’m in the Reformation camp now.   What is interesting is that I am reading through some old study bibles of mine.  I have the ESV Journaling bible which allows for copious notetaking in the margins.

I was reading parts of Isaiah yesterday (which, aside from the gospel of Matthew is really the only piece of literature I would take with me to a desert island) and came across 52:7

Blessed are the feet of those who proclaim good news,
who publish tidings of salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”

That is my favorite verse in the Bible.  Look at the underlined sections:  Gospel, salvation, Reigns.  Following the structure of Hebrew poetry, we can easily see that “salvation” and “reigns” expand the idea of “good news,” or gospel.  In the margins I have written “Cf. Romans 1:3-4,” which says,

concerning his Son, who was descended from David[b] according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord

The word “concerning” is referring back to the subject of the sentence in verse 1, which is “gospel.”  Here we see that the Gospel is that the Davidic king, Jesus of Nazareth, is raised from the dead and is Lord of the world.

In my NPP days I asked, “What does that mean for justification?”  I won’t bother with my answer now, but I realized: it does nothing to the Reformed understanding of justification.  It simply empowers it.  Let’s go back to the motion of Isaiah 52.  It is a proclamation.  Whatever else the gospel and salvation are, they are a “proclamation” of what God has done in Jesus of Nazareth  Everything WSC 33 says about justification is absolutely true and we shouldn’t budge from that one iota.   This above understanding further strengthens the case by realizing that justification is not transformation, it is not sanctification, it is not union with Christ, it is not theosis, however important those topics are in their own right.  It is above all an extra-nos announcement of what God has done in Jesus of Nazareth.

Paul, The Law, and the Jewish People

by E.P. Sanders

I didn’t find his project to be as radical as many of his critics and followers think it is. More often that not, Sanders hedges his bets and only gives “tentative” proposals. Many of his conclusions will be familiar to those who have wrestled with the NPP:

1) Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness.
2) Paul was a coherent thinker, if not an organized and systematic one.
3) The tensions in Paul’s theology arise from sets of convictions: He does not view Christianity as a different religion than Judaism, yet notes that it is quite different in focusing around Jesus of Nazareth and a loosening of Torah.
3a) Paul gives numerous treatments of the Law which are not easily systematized.


Per 1) I disagree with him, but any answer to this question is tricky. I certainly agree that the Law God gave to his people was not intended to be works-righteousness (otherwise God is a tricksy fellow). That is an entirely different claim than saying 1st century rabbis saw it as such. I think Sanders is guilty of conflating two issues into one. I can agree with him that the average Jew didn’t go around in a crude medieval Catholic fashion worrying about how many Hail Marys he said that day. On the other hand, and even the NPP project hints toward this, many did associate at least one level of salvation with who they were as Jews. Contrary to both critics and advocates of NPP, it really isn’t that wide a gap between salvation based on my good works and salvation based on my ethnic identity.

Per 2) This might be tough to say, but we all think it: in one sentence what did Paul really teach about the Law? You simply cannot answer it in one sentence. In some places he says its good; others its bad. Romans 2 almost reads it in soteriological terms, yet that is the exact opposite of Paul’s larger theology. Surprisingly, Sanders doesn’t opt for either easy route: he doesn’t say “Paul’s view is consistent” nor does he say “Paul is simply incoherent.” Rather, he says that Paul is operating around certain parameters from which he does budge. When faced with different ethical situations, it seems like there are different conclusions.

Per 3) This conclusion would have been easier to say pre-70 AD. While the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch, its doubtful they gave themselves that name. They would have saw themselves as good Israelites reconstituted around Jesus of Nazareth, whom God raised from the dead. This creates a real tension that isn’t easily solved until the Temple’s (and hence, Judaism’s identity) is destroyed.

i) It goes without saying that Jewish converts to “The Way” would not have to give up their identity (Paul certainly acts like a good Jew from time to time).
ii) Yet, Gentile converts would not have to embrace Jewish identity markers.

SO far both points are unremarkable. The real problem come with the next one:

iii) Jew and Gentile have to worship together as “one body.”

Sanders doesn’t really point to a conclusion so much as to highlight the problem.

Retractare: NPP and “Works of the Law”

Even when I was in seminary I held to the New Perspective thesis that the phrase “works of the law” means simply “Jewish identity markers.”  A superficial reading of Galatians and how the Jews react to non-Jews getting saved in the New Testament lends support to that thesis.  Further, it functions well as a sociological commentary for today:  it illustrates modern Judaism’s violent hostility to the rest of mankind.    Further, for non-Evangelical traditions it offers a neat harmony between Paul and James:  these traditions get to affirm the Pauline warning against works (simply by defining them as Jewish rituals) yet base the rest of it on works, pace James.

Unfortunately, this thesis suffers from a number of problems:

  1. The New Testament never defines works of the law as such.
  2. Galatians 3:10 does deal with “works of the law” by referencing Deuteronomy 27:26.  At the end of chapter 27 it says “cursed is everyone who fails to do all these things.”  Yet not one of “these things” is a Jewish identity marker; they are all moral and political laws.   This is the inverse of the above point:  The New Testament does define works of the law and it is the opposite definition of the NPP thesis.
  3. If works of the law is Jewish identity markers, and Paul preached we were free from works of the law, then no one would have accused him or antinomianism and moral license  (Romans 6).
  4. If works of the law is Jewish identity markers, and the gospel is simply the freedom from such, then the gospel has no meaning to anyone who isn’t a Jew.

Retractare: New Perspective on Paul

For the past ten years I was sympathetic to, if not openly defending, the New Perspective on Paul as an alternative reading to Luther and Calvin on Galatians and Romans.  I have since rejected this view for the following reasons:

  1. As E. P. Sanders’ own work makes clear (in conjunction with some bloggers at C2C) held to the “merit of the fathers” idea.  This is hard-core semi-Pelagianism.  If so, then the anti-semi pelagian reading of Romans and Galatians is closer to the mark.
  2. The argument that “works of the law” = “ethnic boundary markers” is interesting.  If that is true, though, then how can Paul’s preaching of justification be construed as antinominianism, of which he was clearly charged?   Very few people will infer licentious immorality from the proposition “you can eat shrimp now.”
  3. While I like N.T. Wright’s reading that Jesus was the end of Israel’s exile, this makes sense only within Israel.  As the apostles moved outside the Levant, this message moves to the background.

Horton: Union with Christ

Horton attempts to give a full-orbed defense of Reformed soteriology, utilizing current scholarship, identifying potential weaknesses, and communicating this in a new and cogent manner. And he has largely succeeded.

Similar to other projects, Horton places salvation within a covenantal framework, drawing largely upon the findings of Meredith Kline. In short, Horton posits a “Tale of Two Mothers,” referring to Galatians 4. After a brief discussion of Ancient Near Eastern Suzerain Treaties, Horton shows that God’s promise to Abraham was unilateral, involving no stipulations nor any potential sanctions on Abraham. This continues through the Davidic covenant and finds its fulfillment in Christ. The Sinaitic covenant, on the other hand, is specifically sanction-oriented. The difference between these two covenants is crucial to Horton’s later argument. Horton asserts: “The deepest distinction in Scripture is not between Old and New Testament, but between covenants of law and covenants of promise that run throughout both” (17).

Horton then responds to the New Perspective on Paul. Contrary to the myths about Lutheran re-readings, Horton demonstrates from Sanders’ own findings that the 2ndTemple Rabbis (and probably Sanders himself) were semi-Pelagian. If they were semi-Pelagian, as Sanders’ own writings attest, then the “Lutheran” critique isn’t eisegesis at all. Horton then advances an interesting critique of N. T. Wright. Rather than entering the shrill hysteria that is Reformed polemics on justification, Horton points out that Wright conflates the Sinaitic and Davidic covenants. So when the covenant “climaxes” for God’s people, is it the covenant of promise (David) or the covenant of bondage and death (Sinai, Galatians 3-4)?

Horton has a sharp section on justification and imputation. Justification, on Horton’s gloss, is not a legal fiction because Christ is the covenant-head, and if the justified are “in Christ,” then they possess his covenant status (105). Horton shows that a lot of Wright’s arguments on covenant and salvation, while sometimes shedding helpful light on the issues, really don’t make sense outside Palestine. When the Philippian jailer asks what he must do to be saved, is he really talking about the end of national Israel’s exile? If works of the law mean ethnic markers, then why is Paul accused of antinomianism?

The second part of the book deals with different ontologies. Contrary to the Radical Orthodoxy group, Horton posits a “Covenantal Ontology” which is focused on “meeting a stranger” rather than “overcoming estrangement.” The latter is an application of almost all descendants of Platonic ontologies of anti-bodiement.

Covenantal Ontology: The pactum salutis is the intra-Trinitarian covenant made in eternity. It is realized in the biblical covenants. See also pp. 182-186.

Horton notes that Radical Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism presuppose something along the following lines: overcoming estrangement. By this he means a paradigm that promises enlightenment and a liberation of nature beyond itself (155).

Several times throughout this book Horton advances a critique of Platonic Divine Simplicity, but never calls it such. He has a section on John Milbank and offers a full-orbed convincing critique of Milbank. As readers of Milbank know, he is strongly committed to the neo-Platonic doctrine of absolute divine simplicity. To put the matter briefly, such a view of simplicity negates or mutes distinctions. Horton then goes on to say, “As speculative metaphysics (specifically ontological participation) swallows up the horizon, Christology is swallowed by ecclesiology, and redemptive mediation has to do with overcoming metaphysical binaries (finite/infinite, material/spiritual,invisible/visible, corporeal/incorporeal, temporal/eternal, and so forth) rather than ethical and eschatological ones (sin/grace, death/life, condemnation/justification…this age/age to come” (165. /END EXCURSUS

The book ends with placing the traditional Reformed ordo in a communicative context. Horton wants to avoid some of the hang-ups the Reformed scholastics had when they used medieval categories to challenge Rome. Instead, Horton argues we should use communicative categories, which makes sense since Christ is the Word. Horton suggests we should see effectual calling as a speech-act whereby God creates a new reality. This isn’t that bad a suggestion, since it mutes the charge that Calvinism forces a God who forces the unbeliever’s will. God does no such thing. Rather, he creates a situation, renewing the will (does renewal = violence? I hope not, 223). Throughout Scripture we see the Spirit “bringing things to life, into existence” (Ezekiel 37). Is it so hard to imagine he can do this to the human will?
Interestingly, at the end of the book Horton employs the essence/energies distinction to critique a number of non-Reformed position. Even more, he draws upon Reformed scholastics who evidently employed something like it.

Horton has done heroic work. Milbank had offered a very challenging critique of Reformed ontology. Horton meets it head-on and and redirects it. He gives the most convincing (and charitable) critique of N.T. Wright.

Theology *is* like geopolitics

From N.T. Wright

“Like America looking for a new scapegoat after the collapse of the Cold War and seizing on the Islamic world as the obvious target, many conservative writers, having discovered themselves in possession of the Pauline field after the liberals tired of it, have looked around for new enemies. Here is something called the New Perspective; it seems to be denying some of the things we have normally taught; very well, let us demonize it, lump its propopents together, and nuke them from a great height.” (p. 247)

Justification in Perspective, ed. Bruce McCormack


Don Garlington has written a thirty page response to Piper’s (admittedly old) book on imputation (I realize I am five years behind the debate on the New Perspective.  Actually, I’m not.  I read all this stuff five years ago, but I have been reexamining the issues for other reasons).  Garlington makes a number of interesting observations that should give many New Perspective readers pause (of which I am one).   Outside the conceptual framework of medieval Catholicism, Calvinism derives its merit imputation theology from Romans 4, primarily.  One has to admit that Calvinists don’t simply make up the argument from nowhere.   Paul does use the word logizomai which has connotations of “impute” for later English speakers.  Garlington gives his reasons why that is not the best translation for Romans 4.

Garlington’s paper is interesting, but it is not the main point here.   I was listening to the exchange between Richard Gaffin and N. T. Wright.  They got to the problem of imputation in Paul, specifically appealing to the word “reckon.”   Gaffin made a surprisingly strong case for “reckon” = “impute.”  Wright’s rebuttal was interesting.    Wright acknowledged the force of “reckon,” though he like Garlington said that given the context of the Abrahamic story, other connotations of logizomai are more faithful to the passage.  Wright then admitted that imputation was a biblical concept.  He said we should read imputation language, not in Romans 4 but in Romans 6–baptism.  Through our baptism we reckon ourselves dead to sin.  We are baptized into the death of Christ, and have that reckoned to us.   If one wants to insist in “imputation” language in the Pauline corpus, I don’t mind transferring it to the baptismal passages in Romans 6.

Keys to a recapitulatory Christology

Ephesians 1:10 says Christ sums up all things in himself, both in heaven and on earth.  Christology, then, recapitulates–or sees the recapitulation–of all things (including Scriptural exegesis) in Christ.

I think this is a lot more helpful than making verses say that Christ earned some legal status and transfered that legal status onto us.  One could argue that I am forcing the biblical text onto a recapitulatory grid.  That’s true, I suppose, but everyone does that and indeed, given what van Til taught us, it’s hard to avoid doing that.

The following verses seek to show that Christ “recapitulated” Israel’s story, Israel’s promises, and Israel’s inheritance.   We receive this, not by having some fictional legal status transfered to us, but in sharing in the body of Christ.  Christ gained these promises and in sharing in his body, which is Christ, we participate in these promises.

There are  hundreds of verses to that point, and I suppose dozens of counter-arguments, and I do not have time to examine either in full detail.   However, I will quote and refer to a Protestant author who has effectively reshaped the debate. Richard Hays has decisively and convincingly argued that Galatians 2:16 should be read as “the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ” rather than “faith in Jesus Christ.”   While the actual Greek grammar is the subjective genitive (Hays’ reading), I won’t go into the technical details here, but will rather focus on the implications of Hays’ argument.

If Hays is correct, then saying the “faithfulness” of Jesus Christ makes Christ the active agent in salvation.   It means Jesus is doing something.  At this point the Calvinist will say, “Yes, Christ is doing something.  He is obeying the law and transfering that to our account.”   Technically possible, I suppose, but let’s place Christ within the narrative of Israel.   If Hays is correct, then this reading corresponds nicely to Romans 5–the Second Adam.   Jesus is not only acting as another Adam, but he is also acting as another Israel.  He is the faithful Israelite.  He is, in other words, recapitulating Israel’s story (when I do a book review of Hays’ work I will bring out other points).   To follow up on the previous line, Hays placing Jesus in the climax of Israel’s story.

Hays notes in his book that a weakness of traditional Protestant readings of justification and Galatians fail to show how justification and Christology have any real connection.  This is another way of paraphrasing Sanders’ complaint that justification is a side-issue to the real Pauline core:  participation in Christ.   Sanders is wrong, but he is onto something.  Justification is not a side-issue, but it doesn’t fit into the schematic the way Protestants typically make it fit.  When I finish Hays’ work I will bring out this argument.

One final point, if Hays is correct, then this argument makes better sense of baptism.  If Jesus is the True Israelite (indeed, the True Israel itself; cf. Matthew 2:15), and in Christ’ baptism he continued the story of Israel in a new way (or better yet, he recapitulated Israel’s story), then we, too, find ourselves in this saving, healing story if we also participate in Christ.   How do we identify with Christ?  We do so in baptism.   This doesn’t confer “magic salvation” points to us ala some crass construals of “baptismal regeneration.”  Baptism does save, not because of the magic powers of __________, but because it brings us into the locus of salvation:  Christ and his body the Church.

It was always hard to see how the sacraments were important given a hard reading of sola gratia.  If grace alone truly saved (indeed, especially if we were elect from all time), then we really didn’t have to get baptized.  I know, I know, God works through secondary causes.     But that’s just ad hoc theology.  If pressed to the edge, one has to admit that nothing, not even baptism, contributes to our salvation.   Yes, there are appeals to obedience and what not, but remember what sola gratia claims.   Baptism ends up being a fifth wheel.

On the other hand, if Hays’ reading is correct, then baptism, while “salvific,” does not become a “work” that gets me into heaven (the meritorious scheme has since been abandoned.  Merit has no place in narratival ontologies).

Introductory explorations on the new perspective on paul

The New Perspective on Paul, falsely so-called, is not a recent phenomenon.   I doubt I have any “new” light to shed on the topic.   On the other hand, I think I can pinpoint the key issues in the New Perspective and why the Reformed tradition reacted so wildly against it.

Obviously, there are many areas of contention between the NPP and Reformed camp, but I will only pick one area.  It concerns the phrase “works of the law.”  Does “works of the law” equal “man’s attempt to gain righteousness before God on his individual works” or does it mean “the ethnic boundary markers of Judaism”?

I maintain, with the NPP, that “works of the law” means “ethnic boundary markers.”   This reading actually makes sense of the whole fuss on circumcision in Galatians.   On the other hand, if Paul truly wanted to combat works-righteousness, then he wasted a lot of (precious) ink talking about Jewish rites.   Rather, if we say “boundary markers,” then the narrative (deliberate use of the word) of Galatians (and Romans) flows more smoothly.

The problem is not “how can I find a gracious God?” but “Given the mess Israel and the world are in, and the strange events of Jesus the Messiah, how can God be in the right?”

Test Cases

In Galatians 2:18 Paul says “if I rebuilt what I tore down I make myself out to be a sinner.”   The language of “rebuilding” and “tearing down” implies some kind of fence or wall.  What do fences and walls do?  They demarcate boundaries.   They say, “this and not that.”  What is Paul fussing about in Galatians?  He is dealing with the problem of circumcision and Jews and Gentiles eating at different tables.  In other words, he is angry because men are acting like they have different identities even though there is one Messiah.  Nobody is trying to “earn” his or her salvation by “merit” ala Pelagius.

Therefore, when Paul is rejecting works of the law, he is doing so in the context of circumcision.  But what was circumcision for in the Old Covenant?  It demarcated the identity of the covenant people of God.   If we keep this reading in mind, Paul’s exegesis of Genesis 12, 17, and 18 in Galatians 3 actually stays relevant to the point (on the other hand, insert “works righteousness” and it’s hard to see how the nations being blessed before Abraham was circumcised makes any sense).

Therefore, “works of the law” = “circumcision” = “Jewish identity rites.”

But why does the Reformed faith get so angry over the above exegesis?  While I reject sola fide the way Calvinists define it, nothing I’ve written above contradicts even their reading of justification.  Nothing above advocates earning “medieval merit” (in fact, I think the above reading refutes that).   Sure, they have to change the mindset of their systematic theologians, and perhaps need to start asking different questions, but since they chant “sola scriptura” even that should not be a problem).

So what is the problem?  The problem is if they accept this reading they can’t immediately start bashing Roman Catholicism.  (Yes, I reject Catholicism, too, but not for those readings.)  This is a big deal because Calvinism, being formed in the Augustinian dialectic, necessarily demands Catholicism as an antithesis.  (Keep in mind that Hegelianism isn’t simply thesis versus antithesis = synthesis.  Rather, the thesis posits it’s antithesis while simultaneously remaining the thesis.  I’m accepting Charles Taylor’s reading of Hegel on this point).   Therefore, if Galatians wasn’t written as the blast against Roman Catholicism, then Calvinists are in trouble.

I think it is more than that, though.  All traditions and communities have metanarratives.   Calvinism’s metanarrative, in its more honest moments, is that Roman Catholicism teaches merit-righteousness and Galatians and Romans refutes precisely that.

I think it is even more personal than that.  We can’t admit our heroes were on the wrong track.  The hagiography surrounding Luther and Calvin would put any Orthodox monk-author to shame.  Some go so far to identify their experiences with Luther even to falsifying their own childhood experiences (God pulled me off of a Harley at age 9, etc).  If Luther’s reading of Galatians is wrong, so the argument goes, then Luther is wrong.

While I do think Luther was wrong, the above argument is logically fallacious, and even when I was a Calvinist I told them as much.   They didn’t listen, though.   Narratives are powerful stuff.

More regarding Sanders on the Law

About halfway through with E.P. Sanders’ Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People.  It’s okay.  It is a good read and important in seeing where Richard Hays and NT Wright would later hone their arguments, but it isn’t as controvesial as people make it out to be.  Sure, Sanders denies inerrancy and has a rather low view of the Bible by evangelical standards, but so do hundreds of scholars in North America.   Quite frankly, given my background and training in New Testament studies, I don’t find Sanders all that remarkable.  Yes, he denies certain Reformed distinctives, but so do probaby 90% of respected New Testament scholars today.  What else is new under the sun?

Admittedly, his formulations on Second Temple Judaism represent a unique challenge to Reformed theology, but even given Reformed apologetics, the only other alternative to conservative Reformation readings of Paul were liberal Protestant readings–and Sanders’ reading is neither.

Is Sanders correct?   I think so, but I don’t rest with his particular conclusions.  I think he points in the right direction.  Sanders often admits his conclusions run into difficulties–difficulties that his mainstream Protestantism unnecessarily creates.  For example, given that it is likely St Paul contradicted himself on the Law, we must admit multiple canonical readings of Paul.   My response:  While this sounds honest, it also means we can take our thinking caps off.  If we admit that Paul could not have contradicted himself canonically, and the received apostolic deposit isn’t up for grabs, then we have to work harder and come to deeper conclusions.   (This is where N. T. Wright’s scholarship is obviously preferable).