Aaron Darrisaw has asked about Stephen Westerholm’s critique of the New Perspective on Paul. I don’t have access to Westerholm’s book at the moment (I’m sitting in Damascus airport), so I can’t comment directly on his analysis. However, I could have a bit of a stab in the dark at the whole issue. There is a problem with the basic NPP argument about works of the Law as marks of covenant membership, at least with respect to Romans. Dunn, Wright, and others will have addressed the criticisms, but to my mind there is still a structural flaw in the model which makes it vulnerable to attack from the Reformed side.
My view is that Paul’s argument about justification in Romans is controlled by eschatology—and eschatology understood in contingent, historical terms. The primary thesis of the Letter is that, on the basis of the gospel about the resurrection of God’s Son, Israel’s God will, in the foreseeable future, judge the Greek-Roman world.
But it is a fundamental corollary to this prophetic conviction that YHWH must first judge his own people. Since judgment means destruction, the secondary thesis of the Letter arises from this question: How is Israel to “survive” the coming judgment of the Jewish war? If Israel had obeyed the Law, then Israel would have been righteous; the Law would not have brought condemnation; and indeed Israel would have provided the concrete, communal benchmark of righteousness against which YHWH would judge the dominant pagan culture, by which the family of Abraham would have inherited the “world”.
This is very much a matter of works of righteousness. It is what Judaism essentially aspired to (cf. Is. 45), and it is conceived as a good thing. But Paul’s argument is that the project has failed because the Jews have shown themselves to be as much slaves to sin as the Gentiles. Interestingly we find just this argument in 4 Ezra 3:20-27; 8:31-36, where the writer reflects on the reasons for the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (see The Future of the People of God, 138). The war was understood as a verdict—and from a Christian point of view, as a final verdict—regarding the innate, human sinfulness of Israel.
So if YHWH was to remain true to his promise to Abraham, an alternative way hadto be found, apart from the Law. That was to be the way of concrete, imitative trust in the story about Jesus. Only according to this way of trust would the people of God be “justified” as the conditions of eschatological judgment work themselves out.
Galatians does not have the same eschatological framework—or at least it approaches the issue from a rather different direction. It is a response to a specific controversy regarding the legitimating grounds of membership of the family of Abraham, and in this context it makes more sense to speak of “works of the Law” as boundary markers.
So I think that Reformation theologies, including modern evangelical theology, and even, frankly, much New Perspective thinking, have not given sufficient attention to the eschatological—or narrative-historical—framework of Paul’s theology. Romans is not a general argument about personal salvation; it is an argument about the salvation, survival, spiritual integrity, and moral credibility of the people of God at a particular, indeed unique, moment in its history.
This ninety degree shift of perspective is bound to have implications for how we speak about salvation now. I think that we need to be able to state very clearly that the people of God, of which we are historically members, was saved—that is, escaped destruction—not by works of righteousness or works of the Law but through the “faithfulness” of Jesus and the “faithfulness” of those who not only proclaimed the gospel to the pagan world but lived out its content—who were “righteous” through the Spirit.
Whether it now makes sense to argue evangelistically that people are not saved by works of Law but by faith, I’m not sure. To perpetuate the argument—other than in the distorted, personalized Reformation sense—may simply miss the point. The language belongs to a very specific historical debate. I suspect that a rather different set of issues would come into play, a rather different language would be required, if we asked: what does it take for individuals now to become part of a community that was decisively saved from destruction only because Jesus established an alternative way of justification and a subsequent martyr community had the faithfulness to live it out?