This entry is part [part not set] of 5 in the series What is the New Perspective?

One of the best pieces of intellectual advice I received (from a student, actually!) was that “we should seek to understand before we critique.” Another person, this time a colleague, used to say that “you need to get to a place where you are an inch away from believing something before you can truly understand it,” and he was talking about Islam. Pretty risky stuff, but I think they’re both right. A solid, honest, informed—indeed, Christian—way of evaluating a new interpretation or doctrine is to seek to understand it before you critique it.

And that’s what we’re trying to do in these posts; to understand what the New Perspective is all about, and then—and only then—evaluate it. (I’ll continue to use the phrase the New Perspective for convenience, with the understanding that there’s tons of diversity within this perspective.) So in the following, we’ll continue looking at the main passages that birthed the movement, which was named, nursed and cared for by New Testament scholar James Dunn (Creepy metaphor, but I had to carry it through).

In the last post, we saw that Romans 3:28-30 gives traction to Dunn’s claim that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was trumpeted not in response to Jewish legalism, but in response to Jewish ethnic exclusivism. “Works of law” refers to Jewish boundary markers per se, which exclude Gentiles as Gentiles from entering the covenant. Paul argues against this by saying that justification is by faith and not by one’s ethnic heritage.

We’ll look at two other passages that Dunn uses to support his point. (Again, this should go without saying, but unfortunately it needs to be said. Our goal is not to prove Dunn wrong just yet, but to understand his biblical argument and see if the Bible supports his point. The Bible is central and our ultimate authority, not our theological tradition—“the way I’ve always been taught.”) First, Romans 4:9-12:

“Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

This is a big chunk to quote, but read it carefully. Plain and simple, the main point that Paul makes here is that Abraham received righteousness (i.e., he was justified) before he became a Jew (i.e., was circumcised) so that he could be a genuine father to both Jews and Gentiles. The idea that Paul was combating Abraham’s legalistic tendencies is non-existent. Or at least, that’s not Paul’s point here in his argument. As with Romans 3:28-30, the main reason Paul argues for justification by faith is that it includes both Jew and Gentile on the same ground: faith.

One more text is important: Galatians 2:11-16. Let me begin with the last verse:

“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

We usually read this passage as confronting works-righteousness—we are justified by faith and not by our own merits. While this is true (and every New Perspective interpreter would affirm this, by the way) it isn’t, according to Dunn, the main point of Paul’s statement here in Galatians 2:16. The context is about Paul confronting Peter for withdrawing from Gentile fellowship, because some Jewish Christians came up to Antioch and ratted him out for eating pork. “For before certain men came from James,” Paul says, Peter “was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” So Paul opens up the can on Peter and rebukes him: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Paul’s statement here—which is explicitly about Jew/Gentile relations and not about works righteousness—feeds into his statement in 2:16 about justification by faith.

We can quibble over nuances here, but if you can suspend for a moment all the scathing accusations you’ve heard about the New Perspective on Paul, I think we can all agree that Dunn is at least making a good case from the Bible. (To prevent my house from being surrounded by pitch forks this afternoon, let me just say again that I disagree with several fundamental aspects of the New Perspective.) For all we can see, Dunn is trying to understand the actual argument Paul is making and he’s not trying to overturn the reformation or bridge the gap between Catholics and Protestants (just some of the many accusations lobbed at Dunn over the years).

While you’re chewing on Romans 4 and Galatians 2 let me leave you with a couple quotes from Dunn. As stated above, some people assume that he is promoting a works-based version of Christianity, or that he denies justification by faith, or that he is a Catholic in Protestant clothes. As always, it’s best to read someone on their own terms and not trust the critics, so here’s what Dunn himself has said:

“I took pains to emphasize…that the central affirmation of the doctrine of Justification by grace through faith is and remains absolutely fundamental for Christian faith” (Dunn, New Perspective, 19)

“I affirm as a central point of Christian faith that God’s acceptance of any and every person is by his grace alone and through faith alone” (Dunn, New Perspective, 21).

“The gospel is that God sets to rights man’s relationship with himself by an act of sheer generosity which depends on no payment man can make, which is without reference to whether any individual in particular is inside the law/covenant or outside, and which applies to all human beings without exception. It is this humbling recognition—that he has no grounds for appeal either in covenant status or in particular “works of the law,” that he has to depend entirely from start to finish on God’s gracious power, that he can receive acquittal only as a gift which lies at the heart of faith for Paul” (Dunn, Romans, 1.179).

Now, Dunn could be a liar or a lunatic, but even though he dresses kind of funny I really think we should give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really isn’t trying to overturn the gospel of grace. Perhaps there is some misunderstanding among his critics. And in the next post, we’ll see where this misunderstanding lies.

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  1. Very interesting articles Preston. I think that the church really needs another perspective of Paul – not a “new” perspective … a Hebraic one. So much of the church has her identity in the reformation as Protestants still protesting Catholicism. We seem to read everything Paul writes regarding faith and law in this way of thinking. I like how there is a growing movement to study Paul in his 1st century Jewish context – it’s the only way to rightly read Paul … and of course Jesus!

    We don’t realize that there was so much a gentile had to perform in order to convert to Judaism in the 1st century. It appears they had to undergo circumcision, baptism, travel to Judea to make sacrifices at the temple, and then in a sense prove their conversion by practicing Torah … only to still be regarded as second class citizens! These were all those gentiles mentioned in Acts 2. No wonder when the Holy Spirit came upon uncircumcised gentiles because of faith it was a radical thing at that time … and Paul had to continually warn his gentile followers not to give in to cultural norms by earning their way into the community of faith. Faith came first as he proves with Abraham. Speaking of Abraham …

    What’s your take on the word “justification” from the original Greek? Isn’t “righteousness” more of a Hebraic understanding (tzedakah in Genesis) than the western court-room-feel of being justified? We certainly spend a lot of time talking about justification (aka “just-as-if-I-never-sinned) and rarely mention Hebraic righteousness – when the it’s the same word in our Greek right?

    Also on a side note, the Jerusalem council loosed gentiles from observing all Torah, but isn’t it an assumption you’re making that Peter “ate pork”? 🙂

  2. With Adam F I am very interested in how you will define “righteousness”. From my reformed colleagues they often speak of “alien” righteousness, as if righteousness is something that you can pass on to somebody else in a jar. Isn’t there something to the basic Greek term Dikaiosune about “doing justice”?

    • Adam and Alex,

      Let’s back up the train a bit. I definitely think that the church needs to be much more in tune with the Jewish roots of Christianity. There’s no doubt about that! But there’s two caveats we need to keep in mind:

      1) There was no firm divide between Judaism and Hellenism in first century Judaism (a good book on this is “Beyond the Judaism and Hellenism Divide,” and an earlier work by Martin Hengel [forgot the title]). So there really was no such thing as a pure Judaism that was free from all Hellenistic influences from which Christianity was born.

      2) Much of the early church was born out of diaspora Judaism and would therefore be much more Hellenistic than, say, Palestinian Judaism.

      So there are traces (sometimes very strong ones) of Hellenistic thought in the NT but that’s because there was such thinking already in the Jewish mind at the time. Philo, of course, is a classic example, but with much Jewish literature of the time, you see some clear Hellenistic ideas. Tons of examples in the NT; the one that comes to mind is Peter’s use of Tartarus in 2 Pet 2:4 (one of the more “Jewish” books of the NT). This term is pulled straight out of Greek mythology. And Paul on many occasions made use of and adopted Hellenistic ideas (e.g. 2 Cor 5:1-10).

      So with “Righteousness,” we shouldn’t immediately assume that it always is used with a pure Hebraic meaning with no taint of Hellenistic thought. We’ve got to understand each use in its own context.

      But even here, the OT does show a clear forensic sense of the verb dikaioo. Throughout Isaiah 40-55, for instance, it often conveys forensic notions of declaring one to be in the right (43:9, 26; 45:25; 50:8; 53:11). Dikaosune is also used to refer to eschatological salvation (Isa 42:10-13; 49:13; 51:4-11), and this is where Paul derives his own meaning. Other “courtroom” uses of dikaioo can be seen in Exod 23:7; LXX: kai ou dikaioseis ton asebe), Prov 17:15, 24:24, Isa 5:23, cf. Sir 42:2.

      Just for the record, if this sounds really smart, it shouldn’t. I just happen to be writing a chapter on this very thing right now! So I cut and pasted stuff from my research 🙂

      • “But now a *righteousness* from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This *righteousness* from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are *justified* freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

        I guess the thing that bothers me is that Paul mentions the word 3 times here, but one of the times the same word (in verb form) is translated differently in our English Bible: “justified”. The way I understand “righteousness” isn’t only limited to the court, although I can’t deny the context.

        With my limited knowledge … I agree that Jews were influenced by Hellenistic thought, but I don’t think that the disciples were hellenized to the extent of Philo of Alexandria. I do agree that Paul uses Hellenistic ideas to reach his audience since virtually all of his letters were written to gentiles. However, Paul did describe himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews”. I feel that generally speaking it is crucial to approach the Bible first with a Hebraic mindset.

        • Yes, certainly Philo is more of an extreme, though there are quite a few parallels between Paul and Philo. I’d say Paul was much less Hellenistic, but there’s still a bit of overlap between the two.

          You’ve correctly noted age-old problem between dikaiosune/dikaioo and “righteousness/justify.” Some scholars have tried to get around this by inventing new verbs: Rightwise and Dikaiosify (Westerholm) are among my favorites, though I’m not sure they will catch on. The same is true of pistis/pisteuein and faith/believe.

          As far as the revelation of God’s righteousness (Rom 3:21-22) is concerned, this no doubt goes back (again) to Isaiah 40-55 where we see this phrase used throughout to anticipate God’s escahtological salvation enacted in the suffering servant (Isa 53), which fits into Paul’s point in Rom 3:21-26.

          Both Hades and Tartarus are from Greek mythology, though I’m pretty sure that Hades was used much more freely in Judaism, while Tartarus is almost strictly a Hellenistic concept (save 2 Pet 2:4). Both Jesus (Luke 16) and John (throughout Rev) used Hades, which tells me that through borrowed from Athens, it was much at home in Jewish Apocalyptic thought.

          • Thanks Preston … that’s some great insight there. I definitely see the correlation with Isaiah 53:11 and a poetic flow with tzadik:

            בדעתו יצדיק צדיק עבדי לרבים ועונתם הוא יסבל

            I’m starting to think that it’s possible that Paul had more in mind regarding righteousness than just us being justified from sin. I’d like to get your take on it. Do you think that Paul believed Jesus died not only to make us righteous in a forensic sense … but also to set us free to live righteously? If it’s true it could be pretty transformational for the church to grasp this concept. For instance Rom 6-8 seems to be more about this concept than only justification … having the power to live righteously and as slaves of righteousness. And what if Rom 8:4 is not talking about “righteous requirements” (back to the court room again) but would be better translated “righteous acts”?

            “So that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (forensic view)

            “So that the righteous acts of the law might be made full in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (living view)

            Just like Jesus said so that your “joy may be full”. We should therefore be full of good deeds. It would be translated just like Rom 5:18: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one ACT OF RIGHTEOUSNESS there resulted justification of life to all men.”

            So it was Jesus’ act of righteousness, his righteous life that brought righteousness to all.

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the “living view” make more sense with the context of walking & living according to the Spirit? What do you think about this concept?

    • Adam,

      Tons of good stuff here–too much to tease out over a blog. Perhaps we’re due for another falafal platter at Ali Baba’s?

      In short, yes, I see more of a transformative nature of justification in Paul. It’s implied in Rom 6:7 and Rom 8:1-4 (as you correctly noted, though I think the forensic view of 8:4 fits better), and seems quite explicit in Titus 3:5-7, where the participle form of dikaioo is connected with the washing and regeneration of the Spirit.

      I’m pretty sure that it was the German N.T. Scholars Kasemann and Stuhlmacher who promoted this view, which has trickled over to some American scholarship.

      One quibble: I think the one act of righteousness of Jesus in Rom 5:18-19 refers to his self giving death, not the sum total of his obedient life (though it’s tough to divorce the two entirely).

      Great dialogue, bro! We’ll have to pick it up over lunch!

      • Sorry Preston … didn’t mean to hijack your blog today! I’ll try and keep my posts more related to the topic in the future 🙂 This subject is obviously very interesting to me.

        Regarding the “acts of righteousness” view of 8:4 … it was something I discovered myself a few months back and been meditating on it since. Definitely not surprised that others have thought/written about this possibility. I wholeheartedly agree with you that Jesus’ sacrificial death is the defining “act of righteousness” Paul is talking about in 5:18 – certainly the best example of love we know. We’ll have to grab lunch again for sure!

        • I’m pretty sure Doug Moo’s commentary on Romans has a really good discussion on the “righteous requirement/acts of righteousness” in 8:4; he persuaded me toward the former. But I don’t think this affects the main point: Justification has a transformative effect.

          Love the discussion, bro!

  3. Preston,
    Is your dissertation available in an economically feasible form? I would really like to add it to my research on the NP. BTW – I have read Hengel and do see there is a great deal of cross-over…there is no “pure Hebraic system of thought” in the first century.
    I’ve been reading Timothy Gombis’ “The Drama of Ephesians” and think he does a good job of using 2nd Temple Jewish texts in a way that has learned from the NP without sharing its particular emphases.

    • Alex, I can send you a PDF, but it’s super technical and only deals with a small sliver (though important) aspect of the NPP. Seriously, though, it’ll put you to sleep! I’d highly recommend Westerholm’s “Perspectives Old and New on Paul” or Francis Watson’s killer article available on line: “Not the New Perspective” (great title, eh). Just google it.

      Gombis is a good buddy of mine! And that’s an outstanding book!

  4. Preston, Thoroughly enjoying your blog and the extended thoughts of righteousness and justification through a Hebraic/ Hellenistic view. I didn’t wake up with such lofty thoughts in my head but the coffee is helping and it’s all stimulating. Adam feared he was guilty of high jacking the blog but fear not. I’m soaking this in the quiet of my house at 5:00am and just wanted to thank you Preston for the great amount of time you took to put this all down in writing for us all. It is received and is being enjoyed as a wonderful gift from you.