The Theology of the Apostle Paul | James D. G. Dunn (§14)

This chapter’s a biggie. It’s almost double the size of any preceding chapter and, given its subject (justification by faith), it’s easy to understand why. This is pretty much the central doctrine of every Protestant congregation. Let’s hear Dunn’s take on this metaphor.

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Chapter 5: The Beginning of Salvation

§ 14: Justification by faith

We will start with a summary of the new perspective on Paul. Luther rediscovered the doctrine of justification by faith—that we are not saved from moral effort, but solely by the merits of Christ given to us instantaneously through faith, a gift of God. This way of interpreting Paul has taken root and stood at the centre of Pauline theology ever since. It had the negative effect of anti-Judaism. The reformation’s reaction against the church’s sale of indulgences and pandering of human merit was understood as a modern version of the Judaism of Paul’s day which attempted to earn salvation by keeping the law. First century Judaism became the negative background for Paul’s positive theology.

The debate over what justification by faith means is the debate between Protestants and Catholics:

  1. Does “justify” mean “make righteous” (Catholic) or “reckon as righteous” (Protestant)
  2. Does “justify” denote a transformation (Catholic) or a status (Protestant)
  3. Is the “righteousness of God” a subjective genitive (the righteousness belonging to God) or an objective genitive (the righteousness as a gift bestowed by God).

Behind these debates is the question of Christianity’s relationship with Judaism, brought to the forefront by Vatican II and the Holocaust. It’s no longer possible to indulge these debates with an underlying feeling of anti-Judaism.

In 1977, Ed Sanders Published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which launched the new perspective on Paul. He described Judaism’s religion as “covenantal nomism”. That means, your place in God’s plan is given entirely by grace, but obedience maintains your place. Sanders couldn’t make sense of Paul’s caricature of Judaism as a religion of works since there’s no evidence for that sort of Judaism outside Pauline literature. Paul’s doctrine only makes sense when we begin to understand his “justification by faith” polemic as an attack against Jewish Christians, not his ancestral religion. Justification by faith answers the question of how can Gentiles follow the Jewish Messiah without being circumcised like Jewish Christians.

The righteousness of God” is a key phrase to explore since it occurs in Paul’s thematic statement (Romans 1:16-17) and is repeated throughout Romans. From the start, English speakers are disadvantaged because dikaiosynē is generally translated “righteousness”, while dikaioō is translated “justify”. They’re clearly from the same root. To make things more complicated still, the meaning of the term is more determined by its Hebrew roots than first century Greek thought. In Hebrew, “righteousness” is a relational concept (see 1 Samuel 24:17 where David was more righteous than Saul because he was more faithful to his relational obligation to the king). Therefore, the “righteousness of God” is God’s faithfulness to his people because of his covenant, not our faithfulness. The righteousness of God is the power of God for salvation precisely because it describes his faithfulness to us—both Jew and Gentile. The relational character of “righteousness” also undercuts the three debates listed above. When the focus is on God’s relational faithfulness, arguments about Greek grammar are essentially meaningless.

In the end, Paul’s statement about “the righteousness of God” is a restatement of his ancestral faith—not a polemic rewrite. This leads us to our next question: If the righteousness of God was a fundamental concept in Paul’s Judaism, why did he need to refute a “justification by works” (Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16)? The path to an answer begins in his conversion.

Paul’s conversion transformed his view of Jesus and his view of the law. He was transformed from a persecutor to the sort of people he formerly persecuted. A close look at his reflection on his conversion (Philippians 3:3-6; Galatians 1:13-16) will help us understand why he said both negative and positive things about the law in his writings. We’ll reflect on four aspects of his conversion:

  1. He converted from Judaism. His use of “Judaism” is quite unique. It is not simply a synonym for his ancestral religion. It is defined in the Maccabean era as the rallying point against Hellenism. It is a term that describes Jews who were faithful to their God against not just Greeks, but Hellenistic Jews. When Paul converted from “Judaism”, it wasn’t his ancestral religion, but this intense subset he had in mind.
  2. Paul’s way of life in Judaism is important. He defined himself as a blameless keeper of the law, that is, someone who maintained a greater level of holiness than his fellow Israelites.
  3. Paul is full of zeal. Zeal is a characteristic of God: he is jealous, allowing no gods to come before him. Israelite zeal for God is a reflection of God’s zeal for Israel. This zeal was marked by unconditional commitment to Israel’s distinctiveness; a readiness to defend Israel’s distinctiveness by force—even from fellow Israelites.
  4. Paul was converted to preach Jesus among the Gentiles. The Gentiles were Paul’s former target for persecution. His understanding of the law as iron-clad boundary markers to define Israelite distinctiveness was turned on its head by the call of God.

Paul’s conversion made him realize that justification was not by works of the law. The works of the law are, quite simply, Israel’s righteousness. They were the deeds which God’s covenant made obligatory. Fulfilling them didn’t gain an Israelite entrance to God’s covenant, but was a demonstration of his or her righteousness. Some works of the law became more important, especially during the Maccabeean era. Works of the law which distinguished Israelites from the surrounding culture were particularly important: sabbath, circumcision, food laws. By keeping these, the Israelites reveled in a special privilege that set them apart from the nations. Like believer’s baptism, speaking in tongues, apartheid, scriptural inerrancy, or women priests, these issues were not the core of the faith, but became the centre of controversy to such an extent that taking the wrong side on an issue would lead others to question your entire faith.

With this definition in mind, it becomes clear that the references to “works of the law” in Galatians and Romans (Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10; Romans 3:20, 27-30; 4:2; 9:11; 11:6) all refer to “the obedience to the law’s requirements which most of Paul’s fellow Jews regarded as their raison d’ȇtre as Israel in its distinctiveness among the nations” (365-6). Of all these verses, Galatians 3:10 has been the most troubling. Standard interpretation suggests that since no one could keep the law flawlessly, everyone who relied on it was cursed. The problem with this interpretation is that the law was never understood to require perfection-as-flawlessness. It called for covenant faithfulness. In context (Galatians 3:6-14), it becomes clear that Paul is using the classic blessing/curse theme of Deuteronomy to focus attention on God’s plan to bless the nations through Israel. Since Israel stressed privilege and separation from other nations, they’re clearly not abiding by the law and therefore under a curse.

This understanding of the “works of the law” also clarifies the pseudo-dichotomy between faith and works. Paul could emphasize good works and judgment by works because they were completely different from the laws the Jewish people followed to maintain separation from and superiority over the nations.

Now we can examine the big three texts where the traditional view of Paul’s use of justification are based:

  1. Romans 4:4-5. This text and fundamental point of the Reformation is clear: Human effort cannot achieve righteousness—God justifies the ungodly. Where we differ from traditional interpretation is on how the Jewish person would understand it. Paul was able to state this principle without argument precisely because any typical Jewish reader would agree with it. (Just as God’s election of Israel is purely by grace, his justification of Gentiles is also by grace.)
  2. Romans 10:2-4. This text has been traditionally used to demonstrate that all Israel’s trust in law-keeping is their own righteousness and therefore insufficient. That’s not the case. Israel’s zeal to establish their own righteousness echoes 1 Maccabees 2:27, where the Jewish people were concerned to follow the rules that would keep them separate and privileged above the nations.
  3. Philippians 3:7-9. Again, the need to attain righteousness was not part of Judaism—righteousness came within the covenant. These verses remind us that reliance on cultural markers to determine righteousness was worthless.

Paul asserted justification by faith alone before he contrasted it with the works of the law. The Christian dispute over how the gospel could be presented to Gentiles forced him to expand on the antithesis. Paul stressed justification by faith alone in order to combat the restrictiveness that works of the law entailed. Salvation is for all who believe (who have faith)—not just for those who observe the boundary-marking works of the law. He makes his case both in Romans and Galatians by expanding on two key texts: Habakkuk 2:4 and Genesis 15:6. He changed the wording of Habbakuk 2:4 subtly to stress that human righteousness was a matter of faith “from start to finish” (374). Paul used Habakkuk (along with Leviticus 18:5) in Galatians to stress that those who insist on the works of the law have breached the terms of God’s promised blessing and are therefore under the curse. Paul used the account of Abraham to stress that God’s calling of him and his faith predated his righteous acts such as circumcision. To sum up:

Justification by faith, by faith alone . . . was a profound conception of the relation between God and humankind—a relation of utter dependence, of unconditional trust. (379)

One final question needs to be answered. When Paul speaks of pistis Christou, should it be translated faith in Christ, or faith of Christ? Grammatically, there is little support either way, although you would normally expect a definite article in the second case (the faith of Christ). To answer this question, we need to examine each usage in context. In Galatians, it’s difficult to conceive of any other intended reading than faith in Christ. Things are a little more fuzzy in Romans 3:21-26, but the lack of explanatory phrases strongly suggests that it is human faith in Christ that is in view.

Paul’s view of justification has several beneficial consequences:

  1. Justification is acceptance by the God who accepts those who trust like Abraham.
  2. Justification brings peace with God, unhindered access to God, and enables boasting in God’s glory.
  3. Justification means Gentiles who believe are accepted into relationship with God characterized by “the grace of Israel’s covenant” (388).
  4. Justification means freedom from slavery to the works of the law.

. . .

This chapter really opened my mind. I can tell that it’s going to take continual meditation on these texts and ideas to fully evaluate and integrate them into my classic reformed theological upbringing. After reading this chapter, I feel like I have a good grasp on just what the “new perspective” on Paul means, and the issues it clarifies and challenges. Pastorally speaking, what sort of cultural boundary-markers do we Christians use to maintain the false illusion of privileged status among the nations?

< § 13: The crucial transition

§ 14: Participation in Christ >

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2 Responses to The Theology of the Apostle Paul | James D. G. Dunn (§14)

  1. Mike March 17, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    Interesting review. I believe there’s some merit to the NPP. I have Dunn’s book as well and find it very insightful. I hope this doesn’t go the wrong direction however to eventually support the Dual covenant concept that is espoused by many evangelicals today.

  2. Mike Payne January 8, 2017 at 3:30 pm #

    The Dual covenant position had also been my concern as well. Their was no doubt in Paul’s mind that it was a continuation of God’s covenant through Christ–not a replacement theology –for all who believed Jews and Gentile, Rom 1:16. But the NPP has been an interesting concept for me and I believe their is much wait to it as well. I tend to lean more with Dr Dunn than N.T. Wright or Micheal Bird however. I also fear that it will eventually or is in danger of supporting a more universality of salvation for all people as E.P Sanders ascribes too. But for the most part I will need to make adjustments to my theological thinking here in regards to Paul’s understanding of faith in contrast to works of the law and what that meant for him and the reformation’s idea of faith alone–definitely not fair to read this back into Paul’s thought as if we’re equally the same argument. That’s not to say I will understand the Messianic Jews to be superior over Gentiles Chtistians–for all who believe in God’s Christ will share in this salvation equally so.

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