Because part of my job involves teaching Paul’s epistles, I am frequently asked what I think about the “New Perspective” on Paul. This is a hard question to answer because the New Perspective is not a monolithic movement. We should perhaps more accurately speak of new perspectives (plural) on Paul since the people associated with this ‘movement’ (for want of a better word), people like James Dunn and Tom Wright, actually have very significant differences in how they read Paul.

Nevertheless, we can point to things that they have in common – especially in what they say about the doctrine of justification. One way I have found to be helpful in identifying this commonality is to focus on a key verse – Romans 4:5. The key issue is what it means for God to be the one who “justifies the ungodly.” In this two-part series on justification we will try to work out a look at what Paul means by “justification” and “ungodliness,”

For those who read it in a traditional Reformed way, this verse says that God will declare sinners who trust in Christ to be righteous – that is, morally blameless in his eyes. It highlights the amazing nature of the Gospel. It holds out an amazing hope for sinful, ungodly people who can now approach a holy and righteous God.

The New Perspective: membership, not morality

But New Perspective scholars see this classic Reformed evangelical reading as inadequate. As they look at it, the verse is not so much about morally sinful people being declared innocent, as it is about Gentiles being made part of God’s covenant community. Although this implies that these Gentiles (who are sinners) are now in right relationship with God, the emphasis is on their corporate relationship to God’s people. On this interpretation, Paul is effectively saying the same thing as he does in Ephesians 2:11-13 – Gentiles who were cut off from God’s people have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

Thus, in his commentary on Romans, James Dunn suggests that the ungodly in Romans 4:5 are those who have not performed “any covenant ritual or obligation.”[1] We shouldn’t think of their ungodliness primarily in moral categories, but in covenantal ones. They are ungodly because they are outside the covenant. The good news here, is that “God justifies (that is, through the covenant) the ungodly (the one who is outside the covenant, that is, outside the sphere of God’s saving righteousness).”[2] For an ungodly person – a person outside the covenant – to be justified involves “God treating [them] as fully acceptable, as a full participant in the benefits of his covenant.”[3]

N.T. Wright makes similar comments in his latest volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God. The issue is “not ‘how Abraham got justified,’ as though by an inner analysis of his moral condition or lack thereof, but on ‘how Abraham believed that God would give him this extraordinary family,’ which is after all what the chapter [Romans 4] is about.”[4] That is because, according to Wright, when God justifies someone he declares them to be “within the covenant.”[5] It “means to have God acknowledge that you are a member of Israel, a Jew, one of the covenant family … Justification is all about being declared to be a member of God’s people.”[6] Or, even more clearly:

In Philippians 3, Galatians 2 and 3, and Romans 3 and 4, the wider question is not first and foremost how I get saved, how I find a gracious God, how I go to heaven, or whatever. I’m not saying any of that is unimportant or irrelevant. I am merely pointing out, which anyone can see if they look at the texts, that the basic question has to do with membership in the people of God, in Abraham’s family, in Israel.[7]

The issue for Wright, then, is not primarily about morally unworthy sinners being declared right but about Gentiles being included in the family of God.

This is a central aspect of the New Perspective on Paul. Is it correct? To fully evaluate the New Perspective would take much more than one blog post.[8] But I think we’ll find that even a brief look at the meaning of justification and how Paul speaks of the ungodly in Romans will show that the New Perspective has missed the meaning of Paul’s affirmation in this verse.

We’ll return to the question of what it means to be “justified” and “ungodly” in our next post.

Photo: Craig James, Flickr

[1] James D.G. Dunn, Romans (WBC 38A: Waco: Texas, 1998), 229.

[2] Ibid., 205.

[3] Ibid., 206.

[4] N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2013), 1004.

[5] Ibid., 944.

[6] Ibid., 856; italics original.

[7] Wright, ‘Justification: Yesterday, Today and Forever’, 54

[8] And readers may like to consult Stephen Westerholm’s (very!) brief but (very!) comprehensive book Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).