Feast upon the Word Blog

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Intro to Paul: Justification and the NPP

Posted by Robert C. on July 19, 2007

Of course this is a larger and more controversial topic than I can do justice … to (ellipses for my lame pun attempt…). And I’m surely not qualified to do anything more than plagiarize some summaries of the main currents in Pauline scholarship. Nevertheless: David Horrell describes two main schools of thought in current Pauline thought. The traditional view, which still has many adherents, albeit with new defenses and slightly different views than historical adherents, is that Paul has primarily a sacrificial understanding of Christ’s atonement. The New Perspective on Paul (NPP), on the other hand, is that Paul has primarily a participationist understanding of Christ’s atonement.

The traditional, sacrificial view entails basically a penal substitutionary understanding of Christ’s death as a means of appeasing God’s wrath. We’ve talked before about some of the theological unpleasantries associated with this here (see also here and here)—the main problem is that these views seem to make God out to be vengeful instead of kind and merciful. But theological unpleasantries aren’t a good reason for Biblical theologians to reject the idea that Paul subscribes to this view since Biblical theologians are more interested in understanding the theology as it is variously presented in the Bible, in contrast to systematic theologians who have at least historically been more interested in thinking about issues of overall theological coherence—at least that’s my rough understanding.

What really precipitated the most serious challenge to this traditional reading of Paul was a relatively recent (1977) landmark study by E. P. Sanders which made a rather convincing case that the traditional view of the Judaism of Paul’s day as a religion of “legalistic-works-righteousness” was a mistaken caricature. That is, Sanders made the case that the Judaism of Paul’s time did not believe that salvation was earned by obedience to the law; rather, as Horrell describes it:

At the heart of Judaism’s self-understanding was the idea of covenant, a binding relationship between God and God’s people, initiated by God in an act of undeserved grace. The appropriate response for those who are members of this covenant people is to live in obedience to God’s law . . . . [p. 86]

Sanders termed this covenantal view of Judaism “covenantal nomism” (nomos is the Greek word for law).

Sanders’ work thus opened the door for fresh interpretations of Paul. In particular, a New Perspective on Paul [*] has emerged which suggests a different interpretation of atonement which builds on Sanders’ covenantal nomism: through baptism, we covenantally participate in Christ’s atoning death and become freed from the power of sin. Horrell explains this as follows:

[H]uman beings live “in Adam,” that is, in the sphere of sinful humanity, under the reign of sin and death. The only escape from this realm is death. Christ became a human being, sharing the fate of those in Adam, dying on the cross, but, having been faithful and obedient to God, was raised from death by God to become the firstborn son of a new, redeemed humanity. In baptism, believers die with Christ; they too die to sin and to their old life in Adam. In Christ they become new creations, freed from the power of sin. [pp. 57-58]

Notice how this is related to my previous post discussing the ways in which our faith in Christ depends significantly on Christ’s faithfulness. In this same spirit, our righteousness before God depends on Christ’s righteousness, according to the NPP. That is, if we are in a covenant relationship with Christ who is righteous, then his righteousness makes us righteous before God. Now, since righteousness and justification are alternate translations of the same Greek word (actually, there are several related words, all from the Greek root dike, you can browse different forms of the word here), you can see how this offers a different view of justification by faith. Rather than Christ’s suffering and death paying for our sins in some substitutionary way, the participationist view is that we are justified (in the divine court of justice) by participating in Christ’s righteousness—his righteousness makes us righteous.

I’m obviously sweeping all sorts of distinctions under the rug with this little caricature of differing views. For example, participationist views and the NPP are not really the same thing, I just think there’s enough overlap to lump them together here. Also, my sense is that most scholars believe that Paul employs both participationist and sacrifical ways of describing Christ’s atonement, so we’re not really faced with an either-or decision. Another important aspect of the NPP that I haven’t even touched on is how all of this relates to the extension of the Abraham Covenant to the Gentiles, and the controversy about the extent to which Paul is simply offering Judaism to the Gentiles or is actually declaring something new and discontinuous with the Judaism of his time. And of course Paul’s eschatology is another important issue I haven’t even touched on. Nevertheless, I hope this post is helpful in getting at least a broad sense of an important Pauline topic that scholars disagree on. I hope others will correct me where I’ve grossly misrepresented things, though if Jim F. makes more than a brief comment or two, I will start deleting his comments since I’m more anxious for him to finish his book on Romans 5-8 than for him to correct my naive and developing understanding of Paul!


* The link provided above offers, IMHO, a very good, longer introduction to the NPP with an explicit pro-NPP stance. Here is a link with an anti-NPP stance—though more tendentious in tone, I think it’s interesting to see the way in which many Evangelicals feel threatened by the NPP (note, I think it mistakenly considers Second Temple Judasim as starting in 200 B.C.E. rather than 500-600 B.C.E., at least as I understand it). Here is a more concise and less tendentious criticism of the NPP, a summary-review of a book responding to the NPP. For more scholarly responses to the NPP, see this review published in Trinity Journal of James Dunn’s recent book on Pauline theology—or, if you have JSTOR access, here is the JBL review of Dunn’s book which offers some brief but substantive criticism. I also found this overview of N. T. Wright’s version of the NPP very insightful.

17 Responses to “Intro to Paul: Justification and the NPP”

  1. Jacob J said

    Excellent overview Robert, thanks.

  2. robf said

    Thanks Robert for the overview and links. Any thoughts on where you come down on this NPP debate?

  3. Jacob J said

    If given a choice between the traditional view of Paul and the NPP, I think the NPP is a no-brainer for Mormonism. But then, people often surprise me, so I will be interested to see if anyone here expresses a preference for the traditional view.

  4. Robert C. said

    robf, although I think I am ultimately inclined more toward the NPP view, I think there are enough nuances in the literature that I’m just barely learning that I’m hesitant to come down on one either side, esp. when the sides are bifurcated in two as violently as I have described them in my post.

    For example, James Dunn is one of the most prominent advocates of the NPP, but he believes that Paul did not believe that Christ was pre-mortally divine. I don’t really know Dunn’s position on this very well, so I hesitate to say more, esp. since I don’t understand very well how this relates to the rest of his theology, but needless to say, I’m inclined to disagree with this (though my understanding is that the common Mormon belief that Jehovah was Jesus is not on unquestionable ground, at least historically—that is, I think that before Talmage at least this was viewed as more of an open theological question than it is typically viewed today…).

    Also, I think I’m more inclined than Jacob J. to interpret Alma 34 more in light of a substitutionary, traditional view, though I think Jacob has studied this more carefully than I have and has surely articulated his view better than I have (esp. in his Dialogue article, which he made available somewhere on the NCT blog, but you can also read comment #3 here).

  5. robf said

    Thanks guys. Given how much it will take to wrap my mind around all this, I’m sure it will be a little while before I come to even a tentative conclusion here, but look forward to what everyone has to say.

  6. TT said

    Robert C.,
    This is a nice introduction to some of the key proponents. I am not sure that issues of justification are necessarily at the heart of the NPP debate per se. Rather, Paul’s relationship to Judaism and especially the Law is the primary issue. This is not to say that justification isn’t a huge portion of this issue, only that at the heart of much of the NPP is a concern for Christian supersessionism.

  7. Robert C. said

    robf, I should add that I think I’m more inclined than Jacob in reading Alma 34 and other passages to allow Amulek or the prophet, apostle, etc. to invoke a substitutionary model as a metaphor without making that model “theologically binding.” This, however, opens a whole new can of worms about the nature of hermeneutics and theology, and many post-modern flavored issues, which I simply don’t have time to get in to (and probably don’t have clear enough thoughts to express, yet, even if I did have time…).

    TT, yes, I think you’re right, thanks. (I was primarily interested in discussing differing views on “justification by faith” in this post, and tying this in to discussions of atonement we’ve had here previously—only subsequently did I decide to bring in some NPP discussion, which I think makes my post more of a glimpse of the NPP through the lens of justification rather than a balanced intro to the NPP.)

  8. Geoff J said

    Nice work Robert. Blake Ostler wrote three chapters on Paul in volume 2 of his Exploring Mormon Thought. I still need to post on those in my reading series on that book. But suffice it to say here that Blake is all for the direction NPP goes. I agree with Jacob that it seems to be a no-brainer for Mormons to generally be all in favor of this move (if for nothing else because it undermines the saved by grace alone stuff the evangelicals are always carrying on about).

    Also, you name David Horrell and gave page numbers but I didn’t see the book you were quoting. Did I miss something?

  9. Robert C. said

    I was just being lazy, Geoff, sorry—here is a link to the previous post where I reference Horrell’s book which is a rather gentle introduction to Pauline scholarship.

    I’ve only skimmed Blake’s chapters on Paul so far, but I plan to look at them more carefully in the next few weeks (or months…). Since we’re coming up on Paul soon in Sunday school, I think it’d be a great time for you to move on to the Paul chapters in your review series of Blake’s book.

    I’m not very clear on exactly how the NPP differs from traditional views when it comes to grace, though I think you’re right that the NPP at least views good works as a symptom of covenantal membership (and therefore not unnecessary). However, I know that there is disagreement about whether “works” generally refers to works-of-the-law, or good works, but I can’t remember who believes what on this point. Dunn I think reads works as works of the law and emphasizes the non-moral, covenantal-status laws like dietary restrictions because his reading of Paul emphasizes covenantal status and law is most importantly a status of being members of the covenant—so on his version of the NPP, I’m not sure there is big critical difference in how grace is viewed per se (i.e. it’s prevenient on both views), or the role of good works (i.e. for Dunn, it seems the covenantal works of the law are in fact not necessary…).

  10. CEF said

    Hi Robert and Geoff,

    I agree with Robert here. I did not get anything from Blake’s book that would undermine the evangelicals view of grace. But for a suggestion of some topic someone might want to tackle, would be the metaphysics of grace, which might involve love or agape. It may not get all that many comments, it could be hard to do. But I would find it very interesting.

    I once read something Clark said, something about, he could not explain why he loved his wife. At first I thought that was a no-brainer, but after trying to articulate it to myself, (why I love my wife) I now agree with him. Anyway, just a thought and a suggestion, not trying to hijack this thread.

  11. Robert C. said

    CEF, I like this view of grace: to love without reason. I think that, indeed, an important part of grace is to not have “ulterior motives,” but it seems this ultimately boils down to not really having any reason….

    On the other hand, I have to admit I’ve been puzzling a bit ever since I saw this BCC post regarding God’s unconditional love. I only skimmed the comments, but the post simply references an article by Elder Nelson where he basically claims that saying God loves us unconditionally is not a true, scriptural teaching. This is perhaps best expressed in D&C 95:12:

    If you keep not my commandments, the love of the Father shall not continue with you, therefore you shall walk in darkness.

    I think there are similar teachings in the Bible, though not quite as explicit as this, esp. in the Gospel of John. Anyway, I think Elder Nelson’s way of stating this point is rather startling, but worth taking up esp. in the context of Paul. I’m planning on somehow taking up this issue more carefully at some point, but I’d welcome anyone’s thoughts on this (and don’t worry about threadjacking, discussion’s died down on this thread anyway).

  12. CEF said

    Hi Robert,

    You have probably notice that grace is something I never tire talking about. I am totally fascinated by it. I am not sure I understand just what it is or how it works, but it has become a very powerful motivating force in my life. That is why I think it would/could be interesting to try and understand just what is there about that kind of love that can/does change ones life.

    I did read the comments over at BCC about the conditional love talk that Elder Nelson gave. I was on the FAIR list when that talk was given and they had an interesting time discussing it then. I think it was Kevin Barney that to me, said it best. Something like, “he must have meant not keeping the commandants can cause a loss of blessings, but not love.” Anyway, that is how I would understand things.

    To say that God may not love us unconditionally, IMO, would lead one to think/believe, what is the use of repenting or trying to live a good life? I am just a jerk, will always be a jerk, if God does not love me now, he never will. I will just accept the way I am and let the chips fall where they may.

    On the other hand, believing that God knew what a jerk I was going to be, and loved me anyway then and there, has a certain affect, an enabling power that is beyond description. I think to say otherwise, is deleterious to the spread of the gospel. I do not mean this to sound so harsh, but that is how I see it.

    This topic is analogous to the discussion we had about the prodigal son and if he was really forgiven or not. I never did see anything that made me think he was not fully forgiven, and I have not seen anything that makes me think God does not love us unconditionally. There is my two-cents plus some change. :)

  13. Robert C. said

    CEF, good points. Rereading the D&C passage I quoted in #11, it’s interesting to me how it’s phrased—it doesn’t say that God won’t love us, but that God’s love won’t continue with us. I’m inclined to interpret this as saying that we can shut out God’s love if we so choose, and this is what Outer Darkness essentially is, continually shutting out God’s love from our lives. I still wonder, however, if we are able to feel God’s love without turning away from our sins in at least some sense. That is, I wonder whether we can feel God’s love and be sinning in the same moment. Somehow, feeling God’s love and being freed from the power of sin seem like they are describing one and the same event, though things like physical addictions seem to complicate this simplistic description. Hmmm….

  14. CEF said

    Hi Robert,

    Good questions! There must be something about our nature that is inherently good, and gets darker as we sin, but is always there, at least until at some point we love Satan more than God. I think if we never get to that point of no return, then the spirit of God can/does seek after us, trying to gain us back. Sometimes we feel that tugging and respond by reaching out. If the timing is right, as it must have been in my case, then a change of heart really can take place. I can’t explain it, as I must be one of the worst sinners around. I am an alcoholic and have been in adulterous relationships, and yet God has said “thy sins are forgiven thee.” Go figure. How can one turn their back on that kind of love?

  15. Nitsav said

    There’s a ton of papers about the NPP at thepaulpage.com

  16. […] https://feastuponthewordblog.org/2007/07/19/intro-to-paul-justification-and-the-npp/ […]

  17. […] by TT on December 23, 2007 There has been some interest in this topic on the LDS blogs recently. I think that as we enter into the debate, it is important that we not get sucked into a […]

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