The historical justification of the people of God by faithfulness

Read time: 4 minutes

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?

peter wilkinson | Sat, 04/09/2011 - 15:38 | Permalink

From what I can understand of a previous summary provided by Andrew of Westerholm's argument (life is too short to be continually reading up primary sources!), Westerholm says something like this: Paul's vision is of the impending reality of the wrath of God (final, future judgement, not historical judgement, such as on Jerusalem or Rome). Neither good works outside the law nor works observance within the law will save mankind from this wrath. The good news of Jesus is that a way is provided which does not depend on either.

My understanding of the NP, at least as presented by N.T. Wright, is that the righteousness of God, as it is particularly reflected in his faithfulness to his covenant promises, finds its ultimate expression in Jesus, who provides salvation in the first place for Jews, but also for gentiles, in that Israel as the carrier of the Abrahamic promises always had the destiny of the wider world in view.

The law always was more than a boundary marker - as Romans 4, and outstandingly Romans 7 illustrate. Romans 7 provides an overlay between commandment to Israel, and commandment to  Adam and Eve, with covetousness provided as a common sin. I don't see this as a problem for NPP, since the motivation to win God's favour was presumably very much a driving force behind the political agenda of Torah observation to precipitate the intervention of YHWH on Israel's behalf against pagan Roman oppression in the 1st century, as per the NP interpretation.

In Galatians, the reformed framework of interpretation tends to flatten the narrative impact of the letter by wanting to make the letter illustrate the conflict between 'works righteousness' and the free gift of grace through Jesus. As a result, just as in Romans, Abraham is visualised more as an exemplar of an abstract doctrine of faith, rather than a key player in the story, launching a trajectory which lands in Jesus. The gospel 'announced in advance' to Abraham (Galatians 3:8) consequently runs embarrassingly at variance with a 'pure' gospel of the' imputed righteousness of Christ', as some might like to frame it, and suggests that this was not the gospel at all!

Thanks for the thorough response.

Concerning the "historical" eschatological view you see runnning through Paul, I'm curious as to how you take Paul's statements in Romans 8 about "future glory."

I've read some of your remarks about placing emphasis on "foreseeable" history as a way to govern our interpretation of certain texts. And it seems as though you wish to understand Paul's teaching about justification in light of that paradigm. However, when I read Paul's teaching about future glory (which does not seem to mean anything other than the final glorious state of the world (i.e. not life after 70 AD)), it would appear that Paul did, in fact, consider the final state of glory foreseeable. And if this is so, one does not have to regiment his/her understanding of justification in light of the judgment in 70 AD just because it was closer to Paul's time.

@Aaron Darrisaw:

Aaron, I disagree that Paul is talking about a final “glory” in Romans 8, though he does make passing reference to the final renewal of creation. What he has in view, I think, in a foreseeable future, is the vindication of the suffering church. “Glory” is a word for that vindication. The background to the identification lies, for example, in Daniel 7:13-27, where kingdom and glory are given to the persecuted community of the saints of the Most High, symbolized by the human figure who comes with the clouds of heaven. It is apparent from the fact that Paul makes it quite clear that it is the suffering or persecuted believers who will be glorified with Christ (Rom. 8:17).

You could have a look at these posts and discussions:

Sonship and suffering at the heart of Romans
Becoming like Jesus—not all that it’s made out to be
Today you will be with me in paradise

I guess I'm a little confused... From what I remember from reading N.T. Wright, I think he would generally make the same assertion as you do. I didn't think understanding the "works of the law" were his primary argument, but that his primary concern is closely akin to the "historical-eschatological" framework you're describing... although there are ongoing implications to the specific historical events. Perhaps my memory of Wright is faulty...?

@Joshua Lunde-Whitler:

My memory of Wright may be faulty too… but, very roughly, I think that he is less consistent in applying the historical-eschatological framework to Paul than to Jesus. My recollection from his Romans commentary is that the primary issue has to do with membership of the covenant people rather than with eschatological survival.