A survey of the New Perspective on Paul
The reformed doctrine of justification (the declaration of a righteous status before God by a divine gift of grace appropriated through the instrument of faith in Jesus Christ) finds its summation in the work of Martin Luther. In reformed circles the doctrine of justification is central to any understanding of the Christian faith. "An absolute justification is needed to give the sinner a start. He must have the certainty of no condemnation, of being, without reserve or drawback, right with God through God's gracious act in Christ, before he can begin to live the new life", Denny.
Given advances in Biblical studies, Luther's grand doctrine was inevitably going to be tested, and tested it has been by liberal theologians over the last 100 years. Yet recently, within Reformed circles, there has been, as Glen Davies puts it, "a paradigm shift" in Pauline theology prompted by a "positive re-evaluation of first century Judaism. The previously held characterisation of Judaism as a religion of legalistic works-righteousness has been challenged, if not replaced, by a renewed appreciation of the place within it of the covenant and the role of repentance and forgiveness", Faith and Obedience in Romans, G. Davies, JSOT, supplement Series 39, 1990. This "shift" now goes by the name of "the new perspective on Paul", a term coined by Dunn ("the Sanders/Dunn trajectory", Silva). Paul's critique of law-bound Judaism has prompted endless debate and "the new perspective" has certainly tried to come to grips with the grace/law issue.
E.P. Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977, expanding on the previous work of G.F. Moore in his paper Christian Writers on Judaism, 1921 (ex. Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, the age of the Tannaim, CUP, 1927-30) and Krister Stendahl in his essay The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West, 1963, got the ball rolling by arguing that Pharisaic Judaism did not promote salvation by obedience to the law, but rather taught that salvation was a gift of God's sovereign grace (the blessing of being born a Jew and therefore, an inheritor of the blessing to Abraham, ie. the blessing of their covenant status). For Sanders, the law served to express covenantal status ("covenantal nomism") rather than earn that status ("legalism"), as such it was a privilege rather than a curse.
On the basis of this proposition, Sanders argued that Paul's gospel was not directly opposed to religious Judaism, but rather proclaimed a new framework, in Christ, that replaced nationalistic Judaism. This then is "what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity." James Dunn picked up on this idea in his work The New Perspective on Paul, 1983, reprinted in Jesus and the Law, Studies in Mark and Galatians, 1990. Dunn refined Sanders by arguing that in Christ there is a new covenantal framework that replaces the old. The old framework, which like the new, was a framework of grace, functioned under the privilege of the law. Dunn initially defined the "works of the law" in the terms of Jewish "exclusivism" rather than "legalism": circumcision, the cult, food laws ... Dunn "adjusted" this view in Once More, Society of Biblical Literature, 1991, and Yet Once More, JSNT #46, 1992. In his restatement, Dunn argued that the marks of Jewish "exclusivism" are but the markers of the whole law for the Jew. Confronted by a critique from C.E.B. Cranfield in The Works of the Law in the Epistle to the Romans, JSNT #43, 1991, Dunn also "adjusted" his view that Paul's attack upon Judaism focused on its reliance on election privilege which encouraged indifference to the law's demands. In his restatement of Paul's attack upon Judaism, Dunn included actual disobedience of the law, along with their "boasting". Dunn concluded that for Paul, the law of the old covenant is replaced in the new by that more fundamental privilege accessed by Abraham, namely, faith. To enable the inclusion of the Gentiles, justification is no longer realised by "works of the law" (Jewish "exclusivism"), but by faith.
Dunn's work was further developed by N.T. Wright in The Climax of the Covenant, Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, 1991. Wright agreed with Sanders and Dunn (although he hadn't picked up on Dunn's later "adjustments") that "works of the law" are primarily "the badges of Jewish race", a privilege of the elect people of God, the key mark of privilege being circumcision. Wright went on to further develop the idea of Judaism's covenant status by pointing out that the Jews were actually still in exile awaiting their redemption. This redemption, this exodus, was realised in Jesus the messiah, and since the people of God were now inclusive of Jew and Gentile, justification could no longer be based on Jewish "exclusivism" ("works of the law"), but upon faith. Although justification involves the declaration of a judge (ie. it is forensic), it is a declaration that a person IS eternally righteous (in an anticipatory sense), ie. they are participants in the covenant, thus right with God. This state, rather than status, will be evidenced in a believer's life through the Spirit because "what God has begun he will complete." As for faith, it is the act of believing gospel truth; "covenant membership [is] demarcated by that which is believed."
In summary then, Wright, in the tradition of earlier liberal theologians such as Albert Schweitzer and Krister Stendahl, argues that Paul's "justification" theology does not concern how a person gets saved, but rather how a Gentile can properly be included with Jews in the people of God.
Andrew Das in his work Paul, the Law, and the Covenant, 2001, has tried to bridge the gap between conservative and new perspective commentators with his "newer perspective." He supports the new perspective view that Judaism rested on the grace of God expressed in its covenantal status, but at the same time supports the conservatives in their insistence that strict adherence to the law was expected of the faithful. Das' work at least indicates that the intransigence of both the "Lutheran" and "new perspective" positions is probably less than helpful. The truth is, that no position, in the schema of Christian theology, can claim to have arrived; every age makes its contribution and every contribution has its imperfections. See also Michael Bird, Saving Righteousness of God - Studies in Paul, Justification and the New Perspective, 2007, for another excellent attempt to assess the value of both sides of the argument.
New perspective scholars claim that Paul was no Luther oppressed by sin and guilt, driven to desperation by Biblical law. Yet, it does seem likely that they have underplayed the role of the law. Law obedience is not just a status privilege, but a covenant requirement. First century Judaism saw the Torah as something more than just a life-style manual for members of the covenant. See Justification and Variegated Nomism: Vol.#1: The complexities of Second Temple Judaism, ed. Carson, 2001. On the other hand, there is much to commend the observation that neither were first century Jews crude legalists (the use of the law to earn salvation). Stephen Wasterholm in Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The Lutheran Paul and his critics, 2004, although soundly reformed ("Lutheran"), holds that Pharisaic Judaism "knew and depended on God's grace and did not promote a self-righteous pursuit of salvation by works."
In the end this debate comes down to Paul's understanding of the law. Sanders observation that "works of the law", for a first century Jew, are the deeds done in obedience to the Torah for the purpose of maintaining their standing before God ("covenant nomism - the maintenance of status" rather than "covenant legalism"), has much to commend it. Yet, rather than seeing the faith / obedience correlatives as positives, it is more than likely that nomism is the very heresy that Paul is attacking. Working to retain standing before God and/or progress that standing, in the sense of advancing holiness, cuts at the very heart of a right-standing before God which is "reckoned" by "faith" (Christ's faith/faithfulness and our faith in his faith/faithfulness - right-standing has always been reckoned by faith, cf. Abraham [faith in the faithfulness of God]). Obedience (always imperfect) is a product of faith and secures nothing, nor serves any meritorious end.
So, what do we draw from all this? For Paul, "works of the law" (the strict obedience of the Torah for the purpose of maintaining and/or progressing right standing before God - nomism) is a heresy. Right-standing before God (covenant compliance / inclusion / acceptance) rests wholly on God's grace (God's covenant mercy facilitated in the faithfulness of Christ), and is appropriated through the instrument of faith - "from faith first to last". It is very unlikely that Paul is arguing that justification is a mechanism by which God includes Gentiles with the people of God in these last days. It is far more likely that Paul understands justification as a divine action "to set right before God", Bruce, which righteous state is realised in union with Christ / "in Christ" (righteousness realised in identification with Christ better reflects Pauline thought than imputed righteousness). In simple terms, Paul's argument in Galatians and Romans is not about ecclesiology, but soteriology.
The debate continues. At times, the new perspective edges toward being "another gospel", but at the same time, by challenging Luther's synthesis, it has served as a positive corrective. Romans and Galatians is more about staying saved than getting saved, ie., the problem Paul addresses is nomism, not legalism. None-the-less, I happily leave Luther with the last word. "A Christian is free from all things and over all things so that he needs no works to make him righteous and save him, since faith alone abundantly confers all these things. Should he grow so foolish, however, as to presume to become righteous, free, saved, and a Christian by means of some good work, he would instantly lose faith and all its benefits", Luther, 1520.
See also: Justification and Eschatology, A dialogue with The New Perspective on Paul, R.S. Smith. 2001. RTR Supplement Series #1. A conservative response; The Meaning of works of the Law in Galatians and Romans, R. K. Rapa. 2001; Paul and the New Perspective, Second thoughts on the origin of Paul's gospel, Seyoon Kim. 2002, a mid-road response; Paul and the Mosaic Law, essays edited by Dunn, Eerdmans reprint, 2003; Justification and the New Perspective on Paul: A Review and Response, Guy Waters, P&R Publishing, 2004, a "Lutheran" defence of justification; The Saving Righteousness of God, Studies on Paul, Justification and the New Perspective, Michael Bird, 2007, an attempt to find a middle road.