Predestination and Freewill: James Dunn

This is part of our ongoing series on Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

James D. G. Dunn
James D. G. Dunn

In the Word Biblical Commentary, James D.G. Dunn employs the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul to interpret his letters. This perspective argues that “Protestant exegesis has for too long allowed a typically Lutheran emphasis on justification by faith to impose a hermeneutical grid on the text of Romans. The emphasis is important, that God is the one who justifies the ungodly, and understandably this insight has become an integrating focus in Lutheran theology with tremendous power. The problem, however, lay in what that emphasis was set in opposition to. The antithesis to ‘justification by faith’ –what Paul speaks of as ‘justification by works’—was understood in terms of a system whereby salvation is earned through the merit of good works. This was based partly on the comparison suggested in the same passage (4:4-5), and partly on the Reformation rejection of a system where indulgences could be bought and merits accumulated. The latter protest was certainly necessary and justified, and of lasting importance, but the hermeneutical mistake was made of reading this antithesis back into the New Testament period, of assuming that Paul was protesting against in Pharisaic Judaism what Luther protested against in the pre-Reformation church– the mistake, in other words, of assuming that the Judaism of Paul’s day was coldly legalistic, teaching a system of earning salvation by the merit of good works, with little or no room for the free forgiveness and grace of God.”[1] Dunn understands such a view as a caricature of Judaism, and affirms E. P. Sander’s conclusion that “Judaism’s whole religious self-understanding was based on the premise of grace—that God had freely chosen Israel and made his covenant with Israel, to be their God and they his people. This covenant relationship was regulated by the law, not as a way of entering the covenant, or of gaining merit, but as the way of living within the covenant…”[2] Here one can see that while the soteriological concerns that Luther and Erasmus derive from Romans are not disregarded by the New Perspective on Paul, but are recast within a contextual light. Understanding Romans as a construction of Paul’s theology that rejected the ‘works righteousness’ of pre-Reformation theology simply does not do justice to Paul’s contextual concerns.

Additionally, Dunn’s understanding of Paul’s theology necessitates an understanding of his view of the law.[3] As Dunn interprets the Pauline view of the law, it becomes an expression of ‘distinctiveness’ of Israel among the peoples of the world. Kevin Bywater argues that such distinctiveness focuses on circumcision, calendar, and cuisine, and that such distinctive practices had become a sense of privilege in Jesus’ day, thereby distracting from the weightier matters of the law.[4] Dunn believes that “The Jews, proselytes, and God-worshipping Gentiles among his readership would read what Paul says about the law in the light of this close interconnection in Jewish theology of Israel’s election, covenant, and law. They would, I believe, recognize that what Paul was concerned about was the fact that covenant promise and law had become too inextricably identified with ethnic Israel as such, with the Jewish people marked out in their national distinctiveness by the practice of circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath in particular. They would recognize that what Paul was endeavoring to do was to free both promise and law for a wider range of recipients, freed from the ethnic constraints which saw to be narrowing the grace of God and diverting the saving purpose of God out of its main channel– Christ.”[5] For Dunn, the important hermeneutical key to interpreting such passages as 7:14-25 and 9:30-10:4 involves “precisely the recognition that Paul’s negative thrust against the law is against the law taken over too completely by Israel the law misunderstood by a misplaced emphasis on boundary-marking ritual, the law become a tool of sin in its too close identification with matters of the flesh, the law sidetracked into focus for nationalistic zeal. Freed from that too narrowly Jewish perspective, the law still has an important part to play in ‘the obedience of faith.'”[6] Instead of Paul arguing against the entirety of the Law as that of sin and death, Dunn understands him to be largely positive concerning the ethical requirements of the law, going so far as to say that the Law for Paul, “actually becomes one of the chief integrating strands which binds the whole letter into a cohesive and powerful restatement of Jewish covenant theology in light of Christ.”[7] Dunn also understands a great deal of the election language within Romans 8-9 to refer to the salvation history of the people of Israel, saying that even those who are not chosen are still within the purposes of God for his people.[8]

Dunn thus presents a view that reinterprets Paul’s purposes in Romans as something other than merely a treatise rejecting the works righteousness of Second Temple Judaism that Luther equated to the meritorious righteousness of the pre-Reformation Roman Church. Further, Dunn argues that when Paul writes of the Law, he generally means the outward distinctive qualities of the law, the circumcision, calendar, and cuisine, and not the entirety of the Haw itself. Within this view, Luther’s dichotomy of scripture into condemning law and saving gospel misses the point of Paul’s writing entirely, that the misunderstood aspects of the law are the problem of the flesh and not a coherent system of morality and ethical living. The New Perspective on Paul affirms the reformation doctrines of justification by faith, the sinfulness of humanity, and importance of scripture as Luther and Erasmus did. However, the perspective offers a strong corrective in reading the Law as only condemning and Paul’s overarching purpose as rejecting pre-Reformation Roman-style ‘works righteousness.’


[1] James D.G. Dunn. “Romans 1-8.” Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38A. Editors David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Baker. Word Press: Dallas, 1988. lxv. [2] Ibid., lxv. [3] Ibid., lxv-lxvii. [4] Kevin James Bywater. “Paul.” 5 April 2011. Summit Oxford Study Centre. Eynsham, England. Lecture. And Kevin James Bywater. “The Continuity of the Old and New Testaments.” 29 March 2011. Summit Oxford Study Centre. Eynsham, England. Lecture. [5] James D.G. Dunn. “Romans 1-8.” Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38A. Editors David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Baker. Word Press: Dallas, 1988. lxxi-lxxii. [6] Ibid., lxxii. [7] Ibid., lxxii. [8] James D.G. Dunn. “Romans 9-16.” Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38B. Editors David A. Hubbard and Glessn W. Baker. Word Press: Dallas, 1988. 562; 550-69.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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