When I was in college I remember being told, “The first five times you read the psalms, you’ll realize how little you really know. The next five times you read the psalms you’ll start to understand them. The next five times you read the psalms….” The point was clear. Once you begin to read the Scriptures, you dare not stop. Paul writes, “Oh the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Romans 11)!
The same advice applies to Paul’s letters, today more than ever (an implicit argument for maintaining and enhancing the practice of the lectio continua of Paul’s letters in our lectionaries). The Church has been waging a battle for Paul’s soul over the course of the last century (cf. another recent review of the book Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, by Guy Prentiss Waters).
At stake in the battle is the central doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Some voices ask, “What does the word ‘justification’ mean?” and “Is justification all that central?” That being the case, it’s important for us to be conversant with these discussions.
The first term you need to know is “the New Perspective on Paul.” This perspective emerged in the early twentieth century and blossomed in the 1970s (when the term “New Perspective” came into usage) through the writings of biblical theologians like Krister Stendhal, E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and N.T. Wright.
The New Perspective contends that the Church has been wrong about Paul and his judgment of Judaism for centuries. Judaism was not a legalistic, works-righteous, grace-denying religion. And, since that’s the case, Paul wasn’t contrasting faith and works quite so strongly as we think. We think that because of Luther and his controversies with Rome. What Paul really meant when he contrasted justification by faith and works is that God’s promises are for everybody, not just Jews. The Jewish problem was an over-weening pride in their Judaism and the “boundary markers” (cf. Dunn, Wright) of circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and the kosher diet. God is a God of covenants and wants people in the covenant. The New Perspective stresses community over forgiveness.
E.P. Sanders goes further. He contends that you “get in” to God’s covenant by God’s choice, his electing grace. But you “stay in” by works. He argues that Paul and the Jews agreed on this. And since there’s a dollop of grace (the “getting in” part is all God; though some of Sanders rabbinic sources talk of earning that election), then you can’t call Judaism a religion of works. Thus the whole case for Paul rejecting works in favor of grace and faith alone falls apart, because he and the Jews of his day agreed. That or Paul caricatured Judaism; or perhaps invented a straw man that never existed.
What Sanders does admit is that rabbinic Jews had no real concept of original sin. They did not see man’s total depravity. They saw and acknowledged the inborn drive, the concupiscence, the ability to sin, but not man’s complete powerless, his bondage to sin; thus the granted ability to “stay in” which eviscerates the getting in grace.
Sanders can’t see how “staying in” through works and dismissing original sin destroys the whole premise of the Christian Church: my need for God’s arrow down love for me in Christ. A little bit of legalism is still legalism and empties the cross of value. Sanders can’t see that the rabbinical “staying in” through works mirrors exactly the teachings of the popes in the Roman Catholic Church: Jesus died for you, believe in that, AND finish the job of earning eternal life, that is, staying in the covenant. Which you can do, because concupiscence, that inborn drive, is only called sin, but isn’t really sin, as the Council of Trent teaches. Thus there’s something left within man, even if that something is given by God in the first place, yet still, it’s man’s to have and to do.
The writings of Dunn and Wright, which dance wonderfully close to Scripture in so many areas, tend to display these same weaknesses. Their arguments practically speaking end talk about the need for the forgiveness of sins when it gets subsumed under ethnic chauvinism and nationalism. At the same time, Wright can’t help but talk about a “justification by works” at the last judgment which takes away the comfort of the present “justification by faith” (however he sees it).
This is the main view of Paul today (highly summarized) and we must interact with it. Reading Westerholm’s little book will help you to do so. This isn’t his first foray into the New Perspective. He wrote a larger volume, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics, which itself was an enlargement of a previous work, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters. The main benefit of this book is that it summarizes Westerholm’s work in one hundred pages. Yet, in that one hundred pages Westerholm makes his case and interacts with today’s debates.
This book is worth reading on a variety of levels, not the least of which is that, in most areas, we would find ourselves in agreement with Westerholm on his view of Paul and justification. In addition, he writes with humility and wit, all the while maintaining a serious, scholarly air. That’s the main difference between this volume and Waters’ referred to above. Waters fills his volume with emotion and passion, and rightly so. He sees the danger of the New Perspective, which left unchecked, ends in a return to the Roman Catholic view of infused grace and inherent righteousness, that, in the end, finds all the answers in me. Westerholm sees all those things too, and manages to inject that humility and wit that makes this book a joy to read.
Listen to this dose of humility, which we could all take to heart as we study the Scriptures and their interpreters:
“Those of us brought up, not simply on the letters of Paul, but on a distinctive way of reading those letters, do well to engage with those who read Paul differently. We learn most, it seems, from those with whom we differ. They may see what we have missed. They may see correctly what we have misperceived. And even when we are convinced that the misperceptions are theirs, the raising of fresh questions invigorates our reading of familiar texts and increases our appreciation of those whose careful reading of Paul led them to insights that we, till now, have taken for granted.” (vii)
And yet, he isn’t afraid to disagree and stand on the side of Scripture:
“From time to time, it is suggested [by the New Perspective] that there is something self-centered (or even uncouth) about being concerned with one’s own salvation” (6).
“To claim that the Paul of Galatians was exercised over the terms by which Gentiles can belong to the people of God while overlooking his (still more fundamental) concern with the dilemma facing all human beings responsible before God is to suffer from a peculiarly modern myopia” (18).
“But it is no caricature of Judaism to say, with Sanders, that it lacked the doctrine of the ‘essential sinfulness’ of humankind; no Jew would regard that claim as an insult. For Paul, on the other hand, it is precisely the ‘essential sinfulness’ of humankind that requires a salvation based on grace alone, apart from human ‘works.’ Judaism was not ignorant of divine grace, but that is no reason to deny that Paul could have understood justification in terms of an exclusive reliance on grace in a way that was foreign to the thinking of contemporary Jews” (34).
“Scholars today are not only entitled but correct to say that Paul first focuses on righteousness language for salvation in the context of the debate whether Gentiles should be circumcised and adopt other specifically Jewish practices. (Thereafter, as we saw in chapter 1, he added justification to his repertoire of salvation metaphors.) Indeed, it provided him with a good argument why they should not: Why submit to a regime that inevitably leads to condemnation? We may go further. The emphasis Wright puts on Christ as the fulfillment of divine promises given to Abraham and his descendants is very much in line with Paul’s thinking. We may go still further. Christian scholars today should feel free to find, in what Paul says about justification, a reason for denying that race, class, or gender can provide a basis for claiming, or for denying others a claim to, a right standing before God: Paul’s point, after all, is that human beings of all stripes are culpable before God, and God declares righteous any who believe. The upshot of our discussion is nonetheless that Paul’s doctrine of justification means what Augustine, Luther, and others have long taken it to mean: only by faith in Jesus Christ can sinners be found righteous before God” (73-74).
Westerholm gives us an excellent introduction to the themes of the New Perspective, all while defending it in a manner that Lutherans can be almost universally sympathetic too. He warns us of the great danger of the New Perspective: it redefines Christ’s saving work and claims that what we understand according to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions about justification (“God declares sinners righteous, apart from righteous deeds, when they believe in Jesus Christ. Those so made righteous represent the new humanity, the people of God’s new creation” [98-99].) is only a sixteenth century construct, not what Paul and others meant in the first century; and more, as noted above, tends to see this biblical view of justification as “self-centered (or even uncouth)” (6).
Westerholm rightly notes that for Paul the problem wasn’t just Jewish legalism, but the need for salvation from the law itself which accuses and condemns us (Romans 3): “…as though those who set out to do what they ought must be legalists” (79). No, the problem isn’t trying to be righteous; the problem is relying on that for salvation, which Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and now the New Perspective on Paul have fallen into. More, we always stand in danger of losing Paul’s “more radical perception of human sinfulness” (97-98) which required a Christ who comes down into our flesh, who saves us, who forgives us, who justifies us, by God’s grace alone through faith alone. That Christ gets us in and keeps us in.
Stephen Westerholm (b. 1949) is a Canadian scholar and associate professor of biblical studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He received BA and MA degrees from the University of Toronto and a ThD from the University of Lund (Sweden). He is noted for his work in Pauline studies and is most recently known for his interaction with the New Perspective on Paul.
Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme, Stephen Westerholm, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2013, viii + 104.