The New Perspective: An Assessment
One of the major challenges posed by the writers of the NP school is that we ought not be anachronistic in our interpretation of the biblical documents. What they mean by this is that we ought not to impose the ideas or culture of a later period, especially the ideas and culture of later western society, upon the biblical authors. The writers of Scripture were of Jewish background and culture and we need to interpret their writings in that context. Furthermore, the writers of the New Testament documents were first century Christians who had been raised in Jewish society, and the more we know or can find out about the nature of their society – how they lived – the nature of their political situation – what the aspirations and expectations of the people were – all these things are important for us to understand and appreciate.
Example: Matthew 22 (History Important)
Just to give a couple of examples, in Matthew 22 we read that the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Jesus with their words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians, and they said: “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth ... tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Now, when we come to a passage like this, it is helpful for us to know who the Pharisees were and what their perspective was on this question, who the Herodians were, and what they held, and the implications of paying taxes to Caesar in first century Jewish society. In respect of Jesus’ response, when he asks for a coin and says, whose portrait is this and whose inscription, and then says to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, it is helpful for us to know about Roman coins, and the inscriptions that were printed on them, and how the Jews viewed these coins. All this background historical information is necessary if we are going to understand how Jesus dealt with these people and what He said to them. And all that is before we get to the question of how can we apply this teaching to the matter of paying taxes today. In fact, Matthew works with the same principle. In the same chapter, he speaks of an interchange between Jesus and the Sadducees on the question of the resurrection, and at this point, he informs his readers that the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection. Matthew realised that it was both helpful and necessary for his readers to have this as background information if they were to appreciate our Lord’s response.
This much is true. History and culture are important when interpreting the biblical text, and the writers of the NP school are quite right when they warn us about the danger of historical anachronism, this is – reading back into the text of Scripture cultural and historical data from a later period and imposing it on the biblical writers. However, this is not new. This is the historical part of grammatical historical exegesis. The Reformers themselves stressed this principle. If we wish to interpret the text correctly, we must take into account the meaning and usage of the words, the grammar, the context in which they are written and as much historical and cultural detail as we can muster. This is the kind of information you can find in any good commentary on the biblical text.
1st Century Judaism not a unified entity
Likewise, we ought not to assume that Judaism in the first century was a unified entity, with signs saying “works righteousness” on every street corner, and that Paul rejected all aspects of Judaism when he became a Christian. Just in that passage we looked at from Matthew 22, we read of Pharisees and Herodians and Sadducees – all of whom had different perspectives on such questions as paying taxes to the Romans and whether or not there was going to be a resurrection after death. Still further, not all Pharisees were carbon copies of one another. It is true that Jesus warned his disciples against the leaven, the teaching, of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and that His strongest words of denunciation, and even curse, are reserved for the Pharisees in Matthew 23. But we need to remember that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling court, and Jesus was much more gentle with him in John chapter 3. And in Acts 15 we read that there were believers in the congregation in Jerusalem who “belonged to the party of the Pharisees”. They had distinctive views in relation to the Gentiles, and those views needed to get thrashed out and resolved in that first Christian council in Jerusalem. But here were believers – they believed in Jesus Christ as the Messiah – but they retained ties with Pharisees. So all this goes to show (and we haven’t even looked at writings outside the Bible yet) that first century Judaism was not a seamless entity that was entirely thrown off and rejected by Paul the moment he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.
The idea of “merit” in First Century Judaism
Having acknowledged that, what can we say about first century Judaism when it comes to the idea of human merit in relation to salvation? Remember that since E.P. Sanders published his book in 1977, the NP writers have argued that Judaism, since the temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian Captivity, was essentially a religion of grace. God graciously chose His people. He elected them, not on the basis of merit, but because of His free mercy, and law-keeping was the way in which God’s people stayed in the covenant and escaped covenant wrath and rejection.
Well, let’s take a look at some of the writings of the rabbis. I’m quoting here from a book by C. G. Montefiore. This two volume work was published in 1938, but it is still one of the standard authoritative works on the writings of the early Jewish rabbis.
On the subject of merit:
The Rabbis say: Let a man ever regard himself as if he were half-guilty and half-deserving; then, if he fulfils one command, happy is he, for he has inclined the scale towards merit (zekut); if he commits one sin, woe to him, for he has inclined the scale to guilt ... R. Elazar b. Simeon said: The world is judged by the majority, and the individual is judged by the majority. If a man fulfils one command, happy is he, for he has caused the scale for himself and for the whole world to incline towards the pan of merit (zekut); if he has committed one sin, woe to him, for both for himself and for the whole world he makes the pan of guilt the heavier.
Montefiore points out that in the writings of the rabbis, merit is something that can be stored up. The merits of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for example, are a kind of treasury upon which Israel can draw. Even the merit of a contemporary good man can help his children or the world at large:
R. Phineas the Priest said in reference to Prov. 11:21 (Assuredly, the evil man will not go unpunished, but the descendants of the righteous will be delivered.),
If you have fulfilled a command, do not seek its reward from God straightway, lest you be not acquitted of sin, but be regarded as wicked, because you have not sought to cause your children to inherit anything. For if Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had sought the reward of the good deeds which they performed, how could the seed of these righteous men have been delivered, and how could Moses have said, ‘Remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, so that God repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people?’ Exodus 31:13, 14
As an extension of this concept, the death of righteous people in the community can atone for the sins of the unrighteous.
As the Day of Atonement atones, so the death of the righteous atones.
The question is asked, ‘Why is the death of Miriam mentioned immediately after the passage about the Red Heifer?’ The reply is that as the Red Heifer makes atonement, so, too, does the death of the righteous.
It is written, ‘God has set the one over against the other. God has made the righteous and the wicked.’ (Eccles. 7:14). Why? That the one should atone for the other.
According to the rabbis, the study of the Torah (law) is immensely valuable. The Torah helps the Israelite to conquer the evil impulse of the heart:
All the time that the words of the Law find free entrance into the chambers of the heart, the words of the Law can rest there, and the evil inclination cannot rule over them, and no man can expel them.
Contrast Paul’s statement in Romans 7:8 that sin seizes opportunity afforded by the 10th commandment and produces in him every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. But according to a rabbinic commentary on Psalm 119:10, “The evil yetzer has no power over against the Law, and he who has the Law in his heart, over him the yetzer has no power.”
Calls to devote oneself to the study of the Torah are legion in the writings of the rabbis.
Just two examples:
The poor who study the Law are richly rewarded after death by God. Why are they poor in this world? So that they may not occupy themselves with vain things and forget the Torah, for one must neglect one’s business and occupy oneself in the Torah, for the Torah goes before everything.
As water is gratis for all, so is the Torah gratis for all. As water is priceless, so is the Torah priceless. As water brings life to the world, so the Torah brings life to the world. As water brings a man out of his uncleanness, so Torah brings a man from the evil way into the good way ... Just as water forms a purifying bath, so do words of Torah purify all. Torah purifies sinners in Israel, when they repent, even if they have served idols, as it says, ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean.’ And by water is meant words of Torah.
Being deliberately selective
Now I want to point out that in these quotations I am being deliberately selective. My intention is not to try to prove that every rabbi in 1st century Judaism, or every Pharisee would have expressed himself exactly in this way on these subjects. And we can certainly find many passages in the rabbis which speak of the mercy, grace and forgiveness of God, especially in relation to God’s choice of Israel as his people. Writers like E. P. Sanders have cited many such passages. My intention is to show you that the idea of merit – of good deeds outweighing bad deeds – of the significance of one’s good deeds achieving mercy and forgiveness for others – and of the Torah having the power to produce in us a righteous life, as opposed to showing us our sinfulness and our need of God’s grace – were all ideas that lived in first century Judaism. And this is a departure from the covenantal understanding of historical Judaism.
In fact, as Richard Gaffin points out in an article on the NP, this school of thought “appears to assume a basic continuity between the Old Testament and the various mainstreams within Judaism. For both James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, two leading spokespersons for the New Perspective, the Old Testament roots of Paul’s theology and its roots in Second Temple Judaism seem to be interchangeable or at least continuous. What one would think is an obvious distinction, at least from an evangelical perspective, is repeatedly glossed over. There is little appreciation or even recognition that Old Testament revelation and Jewish religion and theology are not the same thing and are often in conflict, even in Old Testament times and especially in Paul’s day. Nor is there an appropriate awareness of the canonical distinctiveness of the Jewish scriptures in relation to subsequent sources.”
“Merit” and the Fall (Genesis 3)
So why is it that the idea of personal merit before a holy God – of achieving one’s status before God by one’s hard work and effort – why does this come up, even in the writings of the rabbis who had the canonical OT Scriptures in front of them? I want to suggest that there is a theological reason for this that goes right back beyond first century Judaism to Adam and Eve and the nature of the Fall.
This is where we turn to Genesis 3:1-7. Now let’s have a look at this a little more closely. Note what the serpent says in verse 5: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” It is important to realise that Adam and Eve were already like God in many ways. Of all God’s creatures, they were made in the divine image, and we read of this in Genesis 1:26, 27. So Adam and Eve, prior to the Fall, were already like God. But in the temptation, they are encouraged to become even more like God, and ironically, they can only do this by turning away from God and rejecting what He said. Adam and Eve are being encouraged to choose a path of independence from God – a path of – “do-it-yourself-ism,” if I can put it that way – and this is precisely what they do. They reject the word of God. They no longer accept God’s word. God is not to be trusted any longer. No, they must determine for themselves how to live and what is right and what is wrong. This is what the text means when God says later in verse 22 that “the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” This does not mean that God knows evil in the sense of having performed it. What it means is that God determines what is righteous and what is evil. In fact, righteousness and evil cannot be defined or understood apart from God. But the effect of the Fall is to place man in the position of God. Now man determines what is right and wrong, and he attempts to do this without God. This is not the end of the story. This is just the beginning. Immediately we see that God is not going to leave Adam and Eve in this position. Though they hide from him, He is not going to hide from them. In fact, over against their attempts to hide their guilt and shame, God makes garments of skin to clothe them. Please note: This involves the death of an animal. Sin has its price. Death is now in the world. And if the shame of Adam and Eve is to be covered over, it has to be done by God and not by themselves.
Now all those who have descended from Adam and Eve, and that includes everyone reading this article and every last human being in the world today, have inherited the nature of independence from God. We are all naturally inclined to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong in our lives and if we have problems, we want to fix those problems ourselves. We want to make it in life. We want to eyeball the world and say with pride: I did it my way – by my own efforts. Adam and Eve did it their way. We are descended from Adam and Eve and we want to do it our way. In this respect, there are some things that are common to all nations, all cultures, all races and all ages within history. And one of them is right here. We are all naturally inclined to be “do-it-your-selfish.” So when God comes to His people and provides for them a moral standard – when He tells them what is right and what is wrong – “I am the Lord God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before Me” ... they are naturally inclined to take that standard and operate in terms of the principle of independence. It is like the son who says, “I have lived in terms of the standards of the home – I have been a good son – now I want my reward. Make me the owner of the family business.” We are naturally inclined to think in terms of payment for services rendered and this is true, whether we are of Jewish background, or Arab, whether we are Korean or Australian. And it is true whether we were living in Paul’s day, or Luther’s, or in twenty-first century New Zealand. And I think that this is something that the writers of the NP school have not taken sufficiently into account. As human beings, who are all descended from the same set of parents, we have more in common than these writers allow. Wanting to earn a place with God by means of our own work and effort is something that is natural to all societies and cultures. In this respect, Pelagianism did not originate in the 5th century. Pelagianism goes right back to Genesis 3.
One of the central contentions of the NP school is that biblical books like Romans, Galatians, Philippians are not about individual salvation. When Paul speaks of justification, he is not speaking about how individuals, as sinners, can have standing before a righteous and holy God, or about how a righteous God can have anything to do with sinful people. On the contrary, justification is all about how people become part of the covenant people of God and how they remain in it. Is “justification” by means of adherence to Jewish laws, such as circumcision and food laws? Must the Gentiles obey these laws in order to be part of the covenant? Must they have these particular badges of covenant membership – or is covenant membership based on the new badge of faith? Remember, for N.T. Wright, the Gospel is not about how people get saved from their sin. It is the proclamation of the lordship of Christ. And as people come to believe that Jesus is Lord, they express faith and so are regarded as members of God’s covenant people.
Now I want to say that the relationship between believers of Jewish background and those of non-Jewish background was a major challenge and problem in the first century. It was difference of opinion about this that produced the first council of believers in Jerusalem in Acts 15, which was addressed by Paul in many of his letters – understandably so, because he was a prominent missionary to non-Jewish people. He is warning constantly against teachers who insisted that the Gentiles had to be circumcised and practise the laws of clean and unclean food and so on in order to be saved. But is it the case that Paul’s Gospel message has nothing to do with how people are saved from their sin?
Well, let’s take a look at some passages in Romans:
Paul begins his letter to the Romans by saying that he is not ashamed of the Gospel, and he announces in summary form that in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” This is what he says in Romans 1:16, 17. He then goes on to speak about the position of all the nations before God. After all, the good news won’t make any sense at all if we don’t understand the bad news, or what we need to be saved from. So from Romans 1:18, Paul lays out that all the nations are under God’s wrath because they have not honoured and loved Him as their Creator. They have preferred to worship the creature rather than the Creator. But what about his own people, the Jews? Are they in this position too? Well yes, they are. In spite of their heritage and privileges, including their possession of the laws of Moses, they too have fallen short of what God requires. This is the argument of chapters 2 and 3. But now we get this in Romans 3:22-25.
Here Paul mentions another very important word. He says in verse 5 that God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement. Or at least this is how the NIV has translated it. In the Greek it is one word, the word hilastareon. Jesus has been presented as the hilastareon. What did Paul mean by this? Well, hilastareon is the word for the covering of the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. Every year, once per year, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant resided and sprinkle the blood of the animal sacrifice upon the cover of the ark. Remember, this was the Ark of the Covenant. Inside that box, Moses had placed the two tablets of stone on which were written the Ten Commandments – the Law of the Covenant.
The question is: Did the Day of Atonement, on which the high priest did this, have anything to do with sin? Well, let’s see. Note Leviticus 16 where we have the legislation for the Day of Atonement explained. You’ll see, in verses 13 and 14, that Aaron, the high priest is to take light incense in the Holy of Holies so that the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover. This was so holy that it had to be concealed from his eyes. But there’s our word – Atonement cover – ‘Hilastareon’ in the Greek translation of the OT. The blood of the sacrificial bull is sprinkled in front of the atonement cover seven times. Now in connection with the procedures for the Day of Atonement, there were two goats – one of which was killed as a sin offering and the other one set free. Why was that? Well, let’s pick this up in verses 20-22. What was the point of this, symbolically? The sins were being removed.
And furthermore, this took place in connection with, and on the basis of, the sacrifice that took place in the Most Holy Place.
I would argue that all of this was in Paul’s mind when he called Jesus Christ the Mercy Seat in Romans 3. Jesus is the sacrifice whose blood brings about the mercy and forgiveness of God. Apart from this sacrifice, the laws of God, so prized by the Jews, as if possession of them made them special, did in fact condemn them – and everyone else for that matter. Somehow we have to have our sins removed. They need to be sent off into the wilderness. And according to Paul, the only way this can happen is through the blood of Jesus, which was shed on the cross. So now we must exercise faith in His blood. Please note that expression. Faith in His blood. It is not only that we hear and recognise that Jesus is Lord. That is true, and that emphasis on the part of the NP writers is appreciated. But we must also believe in the blood of Jesus. We must understand the nature of His sacrifice and what that means for us, both collectively and personally. It is Christ Who covers over the laws of God so that that we can receive mercy rather than condemnation. I would argue that the whole of the OT sacrificial system was designed to drive that home to God’s people year after year after year. And Paul is at pains to argue that the death of Jesus Christ is just as important for all the nations of the world as it was for the Jews of his day.
This is a passage that we do not have time to look at in detail. But very briefly, Paul is arguing that there is a parallel between Adam, the first man, and Jesus Christ. Adam’s sin brought both sin and death to all. All, that is, who are descended from Adam by ordinary generation – which is all the nations of the world. But just as the action of Adam had consequences for all, so too did the death of Jesus Christ. Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. Again in verse 19.
This passage is one of the passages that Pelagianism does not do justice to. Pelagius argued that we are born morally good, and it is possible for us to keep the moral laws of God. And if we have broken those laws, it is possible for us to deal with that by means of our own work and effort. But according to Paul, if you are a son or daughter of Adam, and that is all of us, then we have all been affected by Adam’s fall. We are all born sinful and are subject to divine condemnation. And it is only through the work of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, that we can be saved – not just from our own personal sin, but from the effect of Adam’s sin in our lives and in the world.
And Romans 5 is not a passage that I have found discussed by writers of the NP. I have searched for it, but I have not yet found an adequate discussion of it.
Covenant and Individual Salvation
There is, in the Scriptures, a stress upon the corporate identity of God’s people and of the Lord’s dealing with His people in a corporate way. For example, in 1 Peter 2:9 – “You are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a people for God’s own possession.” But there is in the Scripture also a stress upon the need for individuals to walk with the Lord. Cain’s offering was rejected; Abel’s was received. Noah was saved; everyone else practised wickedness and received judgment. The book of Leviticus prescribes sacrifices and cleansing procedures for the people as a whole (e.g. the Day of Atonement legislation) and also for individuals, e.g. cleansing from infectious diseases, coming into contact with dead persons or things, and emissions from the body, to name but three. Moses warned the new generation in the book of Deuteronomy that they better take to heart the laws of God because they had just observed as an object lesson what happened to the previous generation because of their uncircumcision of heart. Ezra calls the people to confess corporate sin and repent in Ezra 10, but we also have some of the most telling personal confessions of sin in the psalms in passages like Psalm 51. Paul speaks corporately and universally in Romans 3 and also speaks of his own personal struggles with sin in Romans 7 and 8.
What I am saying is that in the Scriptures it is not an either/or. It is not either corporate justification or individual justification. It is both/and. And it seems to me that the NP writers, while calling our attention to the corporate significance of salvation, have lost sight of the individual and personal dimension of salvation.
I don’t want to give the impression that we cannot learn anything from the writers of the NP school. Much of what N.T. Wright, for example, has written is worthwhile, and serious students of Paul’s writings will benefit from a study of Wright. But the basic thesis that underlies the NP is highly speculative, and it is not established from the biblical writings themselves.
Fair enough that we should go back and study the Scriptures afresh. That is part of the heritage of the Reformation. We always need to go back to Scripture, especially when there is religious controversy and difference of opinion. But I am not convinced at all that Luther was fundamentally wrong in his understanding of the writings of Paul. True, Luther was troubled by his own personal moral guilt before a holy God. But so should we be – whether we are German, Dutch, Korean, or Egyptian – and irrespective of what day and age we live in. If we are sons and daughters of Adam, then our moral condition before God is the same. Paul did not hesitate in Acts 17 to say to his Greek hearers in Athens that God is the judge of the entire world, and He commands all men everywhere to repent. And so should we. This is part of the Gospel proclamation. Of course, we cannot convict people of sin, and righteousness and judgment. That is a work of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts and lives, and we need to pray for this in our evangelism. But the moral condition of all peoples before God, both collectively and individually, is a vital reason why we evangelise. And for people who are, under the work of the Spirit, deeply aware of their own need of salvation, we can offer the comfort of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.