It was, in part, as a response to these various criticisms,
that Sanders released a subsequent volume Paul, the Law and the Jewish
People in 1983, which, in his words was written to "expand and clarify,
and sometimes correct, the account of Paul's view of the law which was
sketched in Paul and Palestinian Judaism." As one writer put it, "Sanders'
basic thesis in this monograph was that Paul's statements about the law
can only be understood if they are seen from the vantage of Sanders' connection
in Paul and Palestinian Judaism that Paul thought not from plight to solution,
but from solution to plight." Sanders re-affirms that "Paul attributed
to God a changeless plan....God's will to save by Christ is changeless."
He then goes on to state, "Paul's argument is that the law was never intended
by God to be a means of righteousness. It is only lately that it has come
to an end as such." Since it was God's intention to save both Jew and Gentile
through faith in Christ from the very beginning, this notion of the true
purpose of the law becoming such a point of division and contention lately
is explained by arguing that a marked dispensation shift as occurred with
the coming of Christ, which it is now Paul's intention to explain and clarify.
Sanders affirms that...
the only thing that is wrong with the old righteousness
seems to be that is not the new one; it has no fault which is described
in other terms....The Jews will not be saved because they seek the righteousness
based on the law, zealously to be sure, but blindly, because real righteousness
is based on faith in Christ....There is a righteousness which comes by
law, but it is worth nothing because of a different dispensation. Real
righteousness (the righteousness of or from God) is through Christ. It
is this concrete fact of heilsgeschichte which makes the other righteousness
wrong, not the abstract superiority of grace to merit.
Thus the fundamental issue is not a law-gospel, grace-merit
antithesis as Protestants have historically argued, but instead is to be
located in the nature of salvation-history itself.
One biblical text to which Dr. Sanders must make appeal,
and which is quite illustrative of the way in his overall approach to Paul's
soteriology is applied, is clearly seen in Philippians 3:2-11. Sanders
states "I regard this passage as extremely revealing for Paul's overall
view of the law." Thus he affirms, "here we may make the limited point
that the passage lends support neither to the view that Paul regarded the
law as impossible to fulfill, nor to the view that Paul regarded fulfilling
it as wrong because it leads to self-righteousness." Sanders' interpretation
is self-consciously and very carefully worked out in accordance with his
presuppositions about the true nature of Palestinian Judaism. Contrary
to the traditional Protestant understanding, which has affirmed that the
phrase "my righteousness...in 3:9 is understood as `my individual righteousness,'
based on merit achieved by the performance of good deeds, which leads to
boasting," Sanders concludes that "Paul does not say that boasting in status
and achievement was wrong because boasting is the wrong attitude, but that
he boasted in things that were gain." In fact, "they became loss because,
in his black and white world, there is no second best." Sanders puts it
Thus `my own righteousness' in Phil. 3:9 is indeed, as
is commonly said, the same as `their own righteousness' in Romans 10:3.
It is not, however, what is thought of today as `self-righteousness.' It
is the righteousness which comes by law, which is therefore the peculiar
result of being an observant Jew, which is in and of itself a good thing
("zeal" Rom. 10:2; "gain," Phil. 3:7), but which is shown to be "wrong"
("loss," Phil. 3:7f.) by the revelation of "God's righteousness," which
comes by faith in Christ.
Thus, the oft-repeated criticism of Sanders' reconstruction
is quite correct; In the mind of the Apostle Paul given us by E. P. Sanders,
"Judaism is wrong because it is not Christianity."
While there can be no doubt Sanders' work has been extremely
important and has opened up new vistas for understanding the diverse nature
of first century Judaism, his various critics have pointed out notable
weaknesses, apparent contradictions and large gaps in his reconstruction
of Pauline theology. It is University of Durham, New Testament professor
James D. G. Dunn, who has done the most to "fill the lacuna which Sanders
originally left between Paul and his background." As Moises Silva notes,
"we could say that the distinctiveness of Dunn's position lies precisely
in his attempt to build upon Sanders' analysis of Judaism so as to provide
a more satisfactory and consistent understanding of the law in the NT,
especially in Paul." In a series of important articles originally published
between 1983 and 1985, and reprinted with updated material in Jesus, Paul
and the Law (1990), not only has Dunn set forth his own unique perspective
on Paul, additionally, he has raised a number of pointed criticisms of
Sanders' efforts to do the same. According to Dunn, Sanders' work, in effect,
begins with a bang - his ground-breaking insights into the true nature
of Palestinian Judaism - but closes with a whimper, leaving us with the
notion that "Paul's religion could be understood only as a basically different
system from that of his fellow Jews." Dunn, therefore, attempts to rectify
one of the most glaring weaknesses in Sanders' work, namely, to explain
"how Paul's differences with Judaism arose. For Dunn, this breach is found
in Paul's combating particularism and nationalism, rather than activism
and merit theology."
James Dunn's response to Sanders, as well as his own
important re-interpretation of the Apostle Paul's theology, centers primarily
around the true meaning of the phrase, "works of the law," as used by Paul
in such texts as Galatians 2:16, 21; 3:11; 5:4; Romans 3:20, 28. In his
1983 essay "The Incident at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-18)," Dunn pointed
out that Paul's confrontation of Peter is the seminal incident in which
Paul's doctrine of justification by faith and Jewish notions of covenantal
nomism come in sharp and heated conflict. According to Dunn:
The significance of Paul's stand should not be underestimated.
For the first time, probably, he had come to see that the principle of
`justification through faith' applied not simply to the acceptance of the
gospel in conversion, but also to the whole of the believer's life. That
is to say, he saw that justification through faith was not simply a statement
of how the believer entered into God's covenantal promises (the understanding
of the gospel agreed at Jerusalem); it must also regulate his life as a
believer. The covenantal nomism of Judaism and of the Jewish believers
(life in accordance with the law within the covenant given by grace...)
was in fact a contradiction of that agreed understanding of justification
through faith. To live life `in Christ' and `in accordance with the law'
was not possible; it involved a basic contradiction in terms and in the
understanding of what made someone acceptable to God. Thus Paul began to
see, as probably he had never seen before, that the principle of justification
through faith meant a redefining of the relation between the believer and
Israel -- not an abandoning of that link (a flight into an individualism
untouched by Jewish claims of a monopoly in the election and covenant grace
of God), but a redefining of it -- a redefining of how the inheritance
of Abraham could embrace Gentiles apart from the law. To begin with the
Spirit and through faith rules out not just justification by works of the
law, but life lived by law (covenantal nomism) also -- the very argument
which he develops in the rest of Galatians.
This means that "Paul is concerned not with the Lutheran
idea of justification by faith but `with the relation between Jew and Gentile.'
His basic assertion is that faith in Christ abolishes national and racial
distinctions made on the basis of circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath
observations." Dunn's second detailed response to Sanders came with the
1985 article, "The New Perspective on Paul." According to Dunn, the most
serious flaw in Sanders' work, even in its updated versions, is the fact
This presentation of Paul is only a little better than
the one rejected. There remains something very odd in Paul's attitude to
his ancestral faith. The Lutheran Paul has been replaced by an idiosyncratic
Paul who in arbitrary and irrational manner turns his face against the
glory and greatness of Judaism's covenant theology and abandons Judaism
simply because it is not Christianity.
This idiosyncratic nature of Sanders' reconstruction
is not only problematic given the data at hand, but confesses Dunn, "I
find Sanders' Paul little more convincing (and much less attractive) than
the Lutheran Paul." In other words, as Dunn sees it, Sanders has missed
what amounted to a golden opportunity to make full use of his important
breakthrough in interpreting the Palestinian sources. "I am not convinced"
notes Dunn "that we have yet been given the proper reading of Paul from
the new perspective of first-century Palestinian Judaism opened up so helpfully
by Sanders himself. On the contrary, I believe that the new perspective
on Paul does make better sense of Paul than either Sanders or his critics
have realized." This then, is what Dunn sets out to accomplish.
To make this new perspective on Paul more cogent in light
of the Palestinian data and the New Testament, Dunn contends that Galatians
2:16 is one critical passage which requires significant re-interpretation.
"This is the most obvious place to start any attempt to take a fresh look
at Paul from our new perspective. It is probably the first time in the
letters of Paul that his major theme of justification by faith is sounded."
Contending that justification is a major theme in Paul, contra Sanders,
Dunn develops what amounts to a significant redefinition and reworking
of the doctrine from that of traditional Protestant orthodoxy:
In talking of `being justified' here Paul is not thinking
of a distinctly initiatory act of God. God's justification is not his act
in first making his covenant with Israel, or in initially accepting someone
into the covenant people. God's justification is rather God's acknowledgement
that someone is in the covenant -- whether that is in an initial acknowledgement,
or a repeated action of God (God's saving acts), or his final vindication
of his people.
This re-interpretation enables Dunn to adopt virtually
intact Sanders' basic conception of Palestinian Judaism - his strongest
point in Dunn's estimation, but yet allows Dunn to significantly re-work
Sanders' unconvincing interpretation of Paul's doctrine of justification.
Indeed, Dunn is quite confident that in his own interpretation of the data,
"Paul appears a good deal less idiosyncratic and arbitrary than Sanders
Rather than argue that justification by faith is the
dividing line between Paul and the Jewish Christians - as in the historic
Lutheran and Protestant interpretation - according to Dunn, Sanders' breakthrough
as to the nature of Palestinian Judaism as a religion of sola gratia, allows
us to see that the doctrine of justification by faith is actually common
ground between the two parties.
Paul is wholly at one with his fellow Jews in asserting
that justification is by faith. That is to say, integral to the idea of
the covenant itself, and of God's continued action to maintain it, is the
profound recognition of God's initiative and grace in first establishing
and then maintaining the covenant. Justification by faith, it would appear,
is not a distinctively Christian teaching. Paul's appeal here is not to
Christians who happen to be Jews, but to Jews whose Christian faith is
but an extension of their Jewish faith in a graciously electing and sustaining
This, of course, immediately raises the same troubling
question for Dunn, which according to most of Sanders' critics, the latter
was unable to satisfactorily answer: "If the division between Jewish Christians
and Paul was not over the question of justification by faith then what
exactly was the issue dividing them?" Here, Dunn offers a more comprehensive
and carefully argued solution than had his predecessor. "The most relevant
factor is that Galatians 2:16 follows upon the debates, indeed the crises,
at Jerusalem and at Antioch...[and] focused on two issues - at Jerusalem,
circumcision; at Antioch, the Jewish food laws with the whole question
of ritual purity unstated but clearly implied." Thus it is in identifying
the specific nature of the debate itself that we can find a satisfactory
The answer to this pressing question, is, according to
Dunn, to be found in the phrase, "works of the law," since "Paul's forceful
denial of justification by works of law is his response to these two issues.
His denial that justification is from works of law is, more precisely,
a denial that justification depends on circumcision or on observation of
Jewish purity and food laws." Thus notes Dunn, "we may justifiably deduce,
therefore, that by `works of the law' Paul intended his readers to think
of particular observances of the law like circumcision and the food laws."
This means that `works of law' are nowhere understood...as works which
earn God's favour, as merit amassing observances. They are rather badges:
they are simply what membership of the covenant people involves....They
serve to demonstrate covenant status." In other words, when Paul denies
that works of the law justify, he is really denying that "God's justification
depends upon `covenantal nomism,' that God's grace extends only to those
who wear the badge of the covenant." What Paul does mean is that "God's
verdict in favour of believers comes to realization through faith, from
start to finish, and in no way depends on observing the works of law which
hitherto had characterized and distinguished the Jews as God's people."
Thus, according to Dunn, historic Protestant exegesis
has erred, in that this phrase does not mean `good works' in general, `good
works' in the sense disparaged by the heirs of Luther." Dunn summarizes
his argument as follows:
In other words, in verse 16, Paul pushes what began as
a qualification of covenantal nomism into an outright antithesis. If we
have been accepted by God on the basis of faith, then it is on the basis
of faith that we are acceptable, and not on the basis of works. Perhaps,
then, for the first time, in this verse faith in Jesus Messiah begins to
emerge not simply as a narrower definition of the elect of God. From being
one identity marker for the Jewish Christian alongside the other identity
markers (circumcision, food laws, sabbath), faith in Jesus as Christ becomes
the primary identity marker which renders the others superfluous.
Thus in Dunn's reconstruction, "Paul does disparage the
law as such, but only certain aspects of the law which identify with the
Jewish nation. This...explains why Paul evaluates the law positively on
occasion and why he could say what he did in Galatians without breaking
entirely with Judaism." Hence, we have come full circle:
All this confirms the earlier important thesis of Stendahl,
that Paul's doctrine of justification by faith should not be understood
primarily as an exposition of the individual's relation to God, but primarily
in the context of Paul the Jew wrestling with the question of how Jews
and Gentiles stand in relation to each other within the covenant purpose
of God now that it has reached its climax in Jesus Christ.
By now the conclusion should be obvious. If the new perspective
on Paul is in fact supported by the evidence at hand, then we can no longer
believe that Paul was writing to answer the question as to how a guilty
sinner could be declared righteous before a Holy God. Instead, we must
see the Apostle as addressing the question of how Jew and Gentile relate
to one another within the context of membership of the covenant. The critical
phrase, "works of the law" can no longer be interpreted as Protestants
have historically argued, as an attempt to earn reward-merit from God through
human effort. Now the phrase must be limited to mean only those external
nationalistic badges, i.e., food laws and circumcision, that tragically
divided Jew from Gentile. The new perspective on Paul is therefore, a serious
and formidable challenge to the fundamental article of historic Protestant
faith, the doctrine of justification sola fide.
Possible Responses to the New Perspective
In responding to the many issues raised by the "new perspective"
on Paul, the place to begin, perhaps, is with a candid admission. It should
be openly admitted from the outset that if the new perspective on Paul
does indeed represent the true picture of Paul the Apostle, then there
can be little doubt that historic Protestantism's central article of faith,
the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, on account
of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, is no longer tenable. Reformed
Christians should not only revise their creeds, they should collectively
repent for dividing the church and laying the groundwork for anti-Semitism
and anti-Catholicism. Perhaps sack-cloth and ashes would be in order! But,
as the response to the new perspective by a number of scholars will demonstrate,
it is certainly a bit too early to panic! In fact, the case for the traditional
understanding of Paul's gospel, at least in a slightly modified form, is
still quite compelling. Indeed, it can be argued that "Apostle of faith,"
not the "Paul of history" - to use N. T. Wright's delightful phrase - applies
far more to the Paul of the Stendahl-Sanders-Dunn reconstruction than it
does to the Paul of Martin Luther.
There are a number of important avenues of response to
the new perspective on Paul open to confessional Reformed Christians. In
this essay, we will focus upon three primary avenues of response. First,
there is a serious question as to the general accuracy of the historiography
on the part of those advocating the new perspective, especially the treatment
afforded to Martin Luther and his supposed introspective conscience. The
Luther portrayed by the likes of Stendahl, and those who have uncritically
followed him, is a Luther who has more to do with their own imaginations,
perhaps, then they would care to admit. Taken by itself, this line of response
does nothing to falsify the conclusions reached directly by working from
the Palestinian sources or the biblical data. But it does serve to demonstrate,
at least in part, the erroneous nature of several of the working assumptions
of those advocating this new perspective.
Second, it is important to point out that there are a
number of excellent volumes, monographs and journal-length articles written
in response to the new perspective. While varying greatly in scope and
slightly in perspective, these efforts collectively serve to demonstrate
that not only are there a number of significant weaknesses and omissions
in the arguments made for the new perspective, especially in regard to
Sanders' use of the Palestinian sources, but that a good case can still
be made for the historic Protestant understanding of justification. In
fact, several of these writers contend that the case is made even stronger,
perhaps, by taking into account Sanders' insights into the nature of Palestinian
Judaism, and modifying Paul's understanding of law and gospel accordingly.
Third, and certainly most important for the subject under
review here, are the "false dilemmas and forgotten verses," to use Silva's
phrase, which ultimately demonstrate that the new perspective is a house
built upon a very tenuous foundation. The new perspective is credible,
in large measure, only because it is built upon several false dichotomies
as working presuppositions, and which when exposed, clearly demonstrate
the artificial nature of the overall reconstruction. In addition, there
are a number of Paul's own assertions which stand in direct opposition
to the statements made by Sanders and Dunn in particular, which are simply
dismissed as irrelevant when they are not re-interpreted through the lens
of these faulty presuppositions.
Certainly, the most amazing irony in this whole discussion,
and too often overlooked by those advocating the "new perspective," is
that there is a striking similarity between Sanders' "covenantal nomism"
and that view of justification set forth by the via moderna of the "schoolmen,"
who Luther so vociferously opposed. While the historian-theologian is often
kiddingly chided by his New Testament colleagues for being bound to the
fixed documents of the past, and therefore, not able to explore the biblical
data for ground-breaking new insights with the same degree of dynamic freedom
as they have, in this case, the shoe may be on the other foot. There are
important lessons to be learned from the past, and Sanders has certainly
missed one of them. In this case, we learn that the new perspective is
not "new" in at least one very important sense.
Sanders "astonishingly...overlooks altogether the theological
implications of [his] statements....[He] offers no explanation for -- indeed,
shows no awareness of -- what looks to be a fairly blatant view of self-salvation."
As one scholar has pointed out, "Sanders' `covenantal nomism' is at root
quite similar to the medieval understanding" of justification, typical
of the via moderna, with its notion that "God gives His grace to the one
who by effort and intent is faithful to the covenant." Indeed, we must
ask ourselves, "How seriously can we entertain any view of Paul advocating
a `works-righteousness' scheme of human salvation in the face of a mountain
of biblical evidence which apparently teaches otherwise?" - a point to
which we will return momentarily.
This does not mean that Sanders' reconstruction is necessarily
false because someone has taught something like it before. But it does
mean that Christians have spent a great deal of time reflecting upon these
matters and Sanders' apparent failure to notice this and thereby profit
from this discussion, cost him the only serviceable compass available which
could have kept him from using his "dynamic freedom" to end up getting
himself lost down a theological dead-end with little way out. What those
such as Stendahl have failed to notice in this regard, is that it was the
via moderna which tended to create guilt and doubt in the sinners' self-consciousness.
On the contrary, it was Luther's stress upon the "theology of the cross
and his affirmation that the righteousness of Christ is given to the believer
by faith [which] marks a radical departure from the introspection of the
medieval theology of humility." While Sanders and Dunn lament the caricature
of Palestinian Judaism by historic Protestants, and perhaps justly so,
they nevertheless insist upon perpetuating Stendahl's fallacious polemic
against Luther and his Paul who pointed sinners to a gracious God.
Indeed, Martin Luther and the Protestant doctrine of
justification have not been without defenders of late, and we can but survey
the central themes of some of them here. On the Lutheran side, one thinks
of the recent work by Stephen Westerholm, for example. Westerholm's Israel's
Law and the Church's Faith, has been described as a "beautifully written
book" which defends the thesis that the law-gospel antithesis is the key
to interpret Paul's writings, and that Luther's interpretation of Paul
was therefore, substantially correct. Confessional Reformed Christians
cannot help but cheer on Westerholm when he asserts "There is more of Paul
in Luther than many twentieth-century scholars are inclined to allow....Students
who want to understand Paul but feel they have nothing to learn from a
Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy. Exegesis is learned
from the masters."
Other capable defenders of the historic Protestant doctrine
of justification from the Reformed side include the work of Thomas Schreiner,
especially his recent book, The Law and its Fulfillment, which convincingly
argues that Dunn errs by drawing the meaning of the phrase "works of law"
far too narrowly. Schreiner concludes that "works of law do not save because
no one can obey the law perfectly," contra Stendahl and Sanders. According
to Schreiner, despite some of Sanders' very important insights into the
exact nature of first century Judaism, there are several very "good arguments
for the existence of legalism in Sanders' own depiction of Palestinian
Judaism. To see the Judaism of Paul's day as legalistic is not anti-Semitism."
Thus, if Schreiner is correct, Sanders is quite possibly guilty as charged
of a kind of selective proof-texting from those sources which contain statements
that seem to mitigate against his basic thesis.
Frank Thielman's book From Plight to Solution, on the
other hand, argues that there is little evidence that Paul opposes legalism
per se, and in this regard appears "influenced by Sanders. Nonetheless,
the major thesis of his book contends that Sanders fundamentally errs in
organizing Paul's reasoning from solution to plight." This is, as James
Dunn notes, "an effective attempt to rebut Sander's influential thesis,"
since it serves to further demonstrate Sanders' quite selective use of
the Palestinian sources. Thielman's effort represents a formidable challenge
to Sanders' thesis since he develops his argument for plight to solution
from the same source materials as Sanders, demonstrating at the very least,
that these sources are far more diverse than Sanders will concede. Furthermore,
Thielman attempts to defend a modified formulation of Calvin's so-called
"third use" of the law in the life of the Christian believer.
Yet another recent writer, Mark Seifrid, in his book
Justification by Faith has attempted to defend the thesis that "although
the idea of forensic justification by faith is not a theological 'center'
from which the whole of Paul's thought may be derived", concepts associated
with this theme were integral to his conversion and to his later interpretation
of the Gospel. Drawing heavily upon Christiaan Beker's coherence-contingency
model and appreciative of the work of both Stephen Westerholm and Frank
Thielman, Seifrid nevertheless expresses some minor reservations about
Westerholm's methodology which, according to Seifrid blocks out "any allowance
for the development of Paul's thought...or the recognition that Paul's
letters were contingent upon specific situations."
Seifrid also has several reservations about the work
of Thielman, noting that "despite the cleverness of Thielman's appeal to
early Jewish traditions, several problems attend to his use of the materials,"
most notably that he has granted too much to Sanders, and as a result,
grants more continuity between Paul and Jewish soteriology than the evidence
seems to allow. For Seifrid, then, "Paul's understanding of `justification'
underwent at least three stages of development. The initial stage involved
his coming to recognize Jesus' death (and vindicating resurrection) as
a divine offer of righteousness apart from law." The second phase then,
"was initiated by interaction with his Judaizing opponents. It was in this
period that arguments for `justification by faith apart from Law' such
as those found in Galatians were formed." The third stage is seen in "Paul's
use of forensic justification in relation to Gentile believers, as is evidenced
by his letter to Rome." Thus, if true, the doctrine of justification becomes
the fundamental grid through which to understand Paul's missionary activity
to the Gentiles.
But perhaps the most telling weakness regarding the new
perspective on Paul is the tendency to ignore critical biblical evidence
which flies directly in the face of the basic presuppositions about the
nature of Paul's gospel and which too often results in the tendency on
the part of those contending for the new perspective to "see as mutually
exclusive what Paul does not; it is also true that Paul uses sharply antithetical
language where contemporary writers prefer to blur the lines." Indeed,
Moises Silva goes so far as to speak of "Dunn's ignoring of some crucial
evidence. I refer to the fact that in the original publication of his articles
on Paul, Dunn completely neglected some of the apostle's most explicit
statements on the subject at hand, including Rom 4:5; 11:6; Eph 2:8-10;
and Phil 3:9." According to Silva, the methodology consistently "ends up
lording it over the data."
In this regard Romans 4:4-5 is especially damaging to
the Sanders-Dunn thesis since "Paul states so sharply the antithesis between
working and believing that the latter is virtually defined by the negation
of the former." The import of this is only enhanced by the fact that Paul
is dealing with the Jew-Gentile question, which, it is argued, is the key
to understanding Paul's theology, especially in Galatians and Romans. "The
whole argument of Romans is built consistently and even relentlessly in
opposition to the Judaizing thesis, which chap. 4 in particular stresses
that the great national marker of Judaism, circumcision, is unnecessary
to belong to the seed of Abraham." Silva is quick to note that this does
not support the conclusion that Paul did not speak often of the forgiveness
of sin and that the Apostle did not see justification as initiatory or
Looking at the data, says Silva, "it makes even less
sense to deny that Paul views working -- in some aspect at any rate --
and personal righteousness-through law as producing fleshly confidence
that is diametrically opposed to saving faith." Thus there is no need to
pit Paul's concern for the relationship between Jew and Gentile against
his assertion that God justifies the wicked, not by works, but through
faith. Thus, it would appear, that the advocates of the new perspective
do indeed downplay, if not ignore, the import of Romans 4:5, choosing to
set up a false dichotomy between Paul's missionary emphasis on the one
hand, and the traditional understanding of justification on the other.
Silva laments the fact that "even if Dunn could come up with a plausible
understanding of Rom 4:4-5 that is consistent with his thesis, one would
still have to ask why this crucial passage seems to have played no role
whatever in the development of the thesis."
Equally problematic for the new perspective is Philippians
3:9. "In Philippians we have Paul's most personal description of his conversion
to Jesus Christ: here he defines gaining Christ as having God's righteousness
by faith, and that righteousness is set in explicit opposition to his own
righteousness-through-law." Thus it strikes Silva as utterly baffling that
Dunn "can put together a book like this one [Jesus, Paul, and the Law]
without so much as quoting Phil 3:9. No doubt, all of us have our blinders
and we unwittingly tend to disregard evidence which does not support our
theories," but nevertheless, "no explanation of Paul's theology can prove
ultimately persuasive if it does not arise from the very heart of Paul's
explicit affirmations and denials." In this regard, the new perspective
remains utterly unpersuasive.
One last avenue of response is closely related to the
previous point and is to be found by taking a renewed look at Romans 7:14-25.
If Luther's thesis was dependent upon an individualistic reading of Paul,
then the new perspective on Paul is certainly dependent upon a non-individualistic
reading. Thus, if Romans 7:14 ff. is autobiographical in any sense, the
tables are turned and the axe is now laid at the root of the Kümmel-Stendahl
interpretation which is foundational to much of the new perspective reading
of Paul. While the majority report among Paul's interpreters today would
be to argue that Romans 7 is rhetorical and has little if anything to do
with Paul's own personal predicament, a compelling case can still be made
for the traditional Augustinian reading, upon which Reformed confessionalism
Though a number of those who stand bravely in defense
of Luther in particular or Reformed confessionalism in general, have nevertheless
declared themselves in basic agreement with Kümmel-Stendahl, a number
of scholars, including C. E. B. Cranfield, and no less than James D. G.
Dunn himself, have defended the view that Romans 7:14 ff. is indeed talking
about a Christian's struggle with sin. If true, this provides an important
basis to understand Paul as presenting Christ as the solution to man's
plight. This would be additional evidence that the doctrine of justification
stands at or near the center of Paul's theology.
Mark Seifrid has recently offered an intriguing potential
solution to the problem of Paul's use of " ." Seifrid argues that "Paul
does not demarcate 7:14-25 as belonging solely to his present, contrary
to what those who read the text as belonging to Paul's Christian experience
suppose. But he does indicate that the condition of the extends into his
present, contrary to what those who read the passage as a depiction of
Paul's past argue."
Drawing upon Stanley E. Porter's work with verbal aspect,
and Peter Stuhlmacher's efforts to point out the striking parallel between
this passage and "penitential prayers and confessions of the Hebrew Bible
and early Judaism....Like Rom 7, a number of these prayers and confessions
include not only a rehearsal of past transgressions, but a description
of the resultant state of the repentant in imperfect aspect and present
time." This, according to Seifrid, enables us to take seriously Kümmel's
primary point, namely that Paul's comments are largely rhetorical, and
yet ensure that Paul's use of is seen in reference to his own experience
- the natural reading of Romans 7. Seifrid concludes:
This re-reading of Rom 7:14-25 vindicates an important
aspect of Kümmel's work. Although the ego of Rom 7 cannot be divorced
from Paul's own experience, we have seen that recognition of the rhetorical
nature of the presentation is essential to a proper interpretation of the
passage. The confessing first-person is used both in early Jewish materials
and in Rom 7:14-25 to reinforce theology and behavior. In a pendulum swing
therefore, the questions which have characterized much of the interpretation
of the text in the last sixty years have missed its central feature. The
significance of Paul's use of this way of viewing himself should not be
He portrays himself in order to move his readers to agree
that the condemnation worked by the Law is still applicable to them, even
though it has been overcome extrinsically in Christ....Such a reading of
the text calls into question the tendency of Pauline scholarship in recent
decades to assign a secondary status to Paul's arguments in forensic justification
-- a trend which has given considerable impetus by Krister Stendahl's attempt
to interpret Rom 7 as Paul's analogy for the Law instead of his defense
of the Gospel. The text does entail the paradoxical state of the Christian
which Luther once perceived, simul justus et peccator, and indicates that
Paul, apart from any introspection, was much more fundamentally influenced
by his understanding of "justification by faith" than many have thought.
This would indeed represent not only a significant exegetical
breakthrough, but a clear vindication of the historic Protestant reading
of Paul. This is all the more important in this regard, especially since
both Stendahl and Sanders candidly admit that their own respective interpretations
of Paul depend upon the over-throw of traditional Augustinian and historic
Protestant exegesis of Romans 7. As Richard Gaffin puts it, Seifrid's work
offers "a stimulating proposal...that warrants further consideration."
In any case, it is simply too early to concede the point that the traditional
Augustinian interpretation of Romans 7 has no merit.
In conclusion then, there is certainly much to learn
from the work of E. P Sanders and James Dunn. Sanders in particular has
demonstrated that the monolithic interpretation of Palestinian Judaism
as a religion of works righteousness typical of much of Protestant scholarship,
is certainly in need of correction. The Palestinian sources do undoubtedly
contain (but not exclusively so) a sola gratia element. Dunn has also positively
contributed to our understanding of the "Mosaic Law (particularly its ceremonial
elements) as playing a social role that lies behind much of the controversy
in the first century...[and is] an important and valid insight, if only
it is not allowed to obscure other elements that are every bit as significant."
But when all is said and done,
Martin Luther's gracious God who justifies the wicked through faith alone
is still the God of the Apostle Paul. Luther's Atlas remains standing,
and the confessional Reformed tradition's central article of the faith
has withstood yet another challenge, bloody perhaps, but nevertheless unbroken.