This is part of our ongoing series on Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.
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.” 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…” 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. Continue reading