New Perspective on Reformed Tradition: A Response to Kelly
By Daniel Kirk
This new perspective on Paul does not amount to a new teaching which overthrows the old.
New Perspective on the Reformed Tradition: A Response to Douglas Kelly
In view of the recently posted Sample Questions for Theological Exams by Douglas Kelly and Ligon Duncan in PCANews, as an addendum to Kellys article on the new perspective on Paul, I consider a rejoinder to Kellys article to be of utmost importance for the peace, purity and unity of the Presbyterian Church in America.
Whenever a new theological movement arises, it behooves us to examine it carefully. We live in an uneasy age of imperfection, needing to balance gratefulness for what light God has given us from the Scriptures throughout the history of the church, cautious realization that anything coming to us from sinful humans will be imperfect and possibly errant, and expectant hope that the Holy Ghost hath yet more light to shed on the word of God. This is, indeed, a tall order.
The task of handling theological developments with both shrewdness and innocence is complicated by the history of our church, the PCA. We are a church that exists because of the infusion of unbiblical teaching into the broader church body. We thus have a default mode of conservatism that makes it difficult to recognize when the Spirit is, indeed, shining forth new light from the word of God.
It will be readily apparent to those who have spent significant time reading E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, and the body of evidence with which they have wrestled, that Douglas Kellys recent critique of the so-called New Perspective on Paul in the PCANews comes up short. It is more an attempt to conserve standard articulations of the faith than an informed assessment of the work of these three New Testament scholars.
By disagreeing with Kelly, I am not suggesting that these standard articulations are to be abandoned. Quite the opposite. In his (mis)representations and critiques of the views of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, Kelly is himself undermining those standard affirmations, particularly as they have been articulated in the Westminster Standards and recent developments in Reformed theology.
As the process of evaluating the new perspective on Paul continues, we in the Reformed community will have to pay better attention both to our own tradition and to the actual writings of the people whom we are critiquing. This essay is written as a humble beginning toward both of those goals.
I. Understanding Covenantal Nomism
A. What is Covenantal Nomism?
The term covenantal nomism was, as Kelly indicates, coined by E. P. Sanders in his 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. As he does consistently throughout the article, Kelly appeals to another persons writing to access Sanders (in this case, Kelly refers to N. T. Wrights synopsis of Sanders, elsewhere he gets Sanders material from Dunn). In this case, such an appeal is not problematic, but if Kelly wants to include Sanders in his critique, it would be fitting for him to be able to indicate that he has read the mans writing.
The term itself indicates that the Jewish pattern of religion is based on the notion that God entered into covenant with his people, and that based on this covenant relationship, the people were to obey the law (Greek nomos). Salvation, in Sanderss scheme, is defined as entry into the people of God. Hence, law-keeping follows salvation.
There are other ways of articulating this same notion. For example, one might say, Because God is the Lord, and our [covenant] God, and redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all his commandments (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 44; cf. Larger Catechism 101).
The point of covenantal nomism is that the OT pattern of indicative preceding imperative was not entirely lost in an era of darkness before the coming of Christ.
Righteousness in the Jewish material of the SecondTemple period is defined as Gods covenant people doing what God has commanded (Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 33-428). Significantly, this material has been recently reassessed by a diverse group of scholars in Justification and Variegated Nomism vol. 1: The Complexities of SecondTemple Judaism (ed. D. A. Carson, P. T. OBrien and M. Seifrid). The overall thrust of the articles (despite Carsons aversions in the Conclusion) is that, despite some problems, Sanders is basically right. Jewish people considered law-keeping righteousness as something that is done by those already within the covenant community.
This assessment of the literature does not answer every question, however, as the contributors to JVN have pointed out. Perhaps most significantly, we might question whether salvation should be used to refer to entry into the covenant people, or rather for final, eschatological salvation. Sanders speaks of entry into the covenant community as salvation, leaving it somewhat unclear how we should label entry into the world to comesomething gained through law keeping. If salvation is defined as entry into the world to come, then the relationship between works and salvation might be cast in a somewhat different light.
B. What is the relationship between Covenantal Nomism and Pauls Pattern of Religion?
1. First of all, it must be underscored that it is precisely here that vast differences of opinion exist among the various scholars Kelly has dealt with. We will begin with E. P. Sanders.
The first thing that bears pointing out as we come to deal with E. P. Sanders on Paul is that he is the one who declared that justification is entry language for Paul (PPJ, 470-2). For Sanders, this is precisely what separates Paul from his Jewish contemporaries (PPJ, 544).
Sanders writes: Thus in all these essential pointsthe meaning of righteousness, the role of repentance, the nature of sin, the nature of the saved group, and, most important, the necessity of transferring from the damned to the savedPauls thought can be sharply distinguished from anything to be found in Palestinian Judaism (PPJ, 548).
The next thing that must be said is that, for Sanders, Pauls pattern of religion is not properly described as covenantal nomism. Given that Sanders has a section in PPJ with the title, Covenantal Nomism in Paul, this is quite easy to verify.
A close look at Sanders enables us to see that when Dunn is reacting against the notion of justification as entry language, he is not so much directing his polemic against the Reformation teaching, as he is against Sanders. (Although it may be that Sanders and the Reformers agree here.) Moreover, it was precisely to admonish Sanders for not applying the pattern of covenantal nomism to Paul that Dunn wrote his seminal article, The New Perspective on Paul.
And Wright, to a greater extent and more consistently than Dunn, has pressed for a radical newness brought by Christ into the continuing covenantal relationship between God and His people. Wright is not Dunn, and neither is Sanders.
The point here is that the new perspective is a diverse movement, especially when it comes to working out the nature and content of Pauls theology.
For Sanders, Pauls pattern of religion is captured in the phrase, participationist eschatology (PPJ, 549). The participationist aspect is what we call in Reformed theology union with Christ. This aspect of Pauls understanding of salvation [what theologians call his soteriology] suffuses Calvins teaching on justification in III.xi of the Institutes; it is foundational for the soteriology of the Westminster Standards in the Larger Catechism (Q/A 65, 66, 69); it has more recently found an enthusiastic exponent in Richard B. Gaffin of Westminster Seminary, under whose influence the soteriological instruction in the systematic theology department has revolved around this vital Pauline theme.
Gaffin has highlighted the centrality of union with Christ in both his seminal work Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Pauline Soteriology, and also in recent lectures at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and his inaugural address for the Krahe Chair of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster. (Available online:
And Gaffin, in turn, has been building on the work of John Murray, the longtime professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary: Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation not only in its application but also in its once-for-all accomplishment in the finished work of Christ (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 161). we may never think of redemption in abstraction from the mysterious arrangements of Gods love and wisdom and grace by which Christ was united to his people and his people were united to him when he died upon the accursed tree and rose again from the dead (ibid., 162-63).
Within the Reformed community, we have also seen healthy employment of eschatology as a vital aspect of Pauls thought. The works of Geerhardus Vos (The Pauline Eschatology), Herman Ridderbos (Paul: An Outline of His Theology) and, again, Richard Gaffin and Westminster Seminary, have all underscored the architectonic function of eschatology in the apostles thought.
In other words, though there is much in Sanders that the Reformed community will find objectionable, and rightly so, his description of Pauls pattern of religion fits the understanding that has developed in the Reformed world over the past several centuries.
2. It should be clear, even to those who have only read Kellys article, that Wright and Dunn differ significantly from Sanders on some crucial points. The divergence of Dunn from Sanders is evident in the following passage that Kelly quotes from Dunn:
To be justified in Paul, cannot, therefore, be treated simply as an entry or initiation formula; nor is it possible to draw a clear line of distinction between Pauls usage and the typically Jewish covenant usage (Jesus, Paul and the Law, 190).
The pivotal weakness of Kellys argument is that he does not investigate what, precisely, is the nature of the similarity between Paul and his contemporaries; nor does he investigate what, precisely, is the difference.
Reading Kellys article, one gets the impression that Dunn reads Paul as saying that Jews have no need for Jesus, because they are already righteous on the basis of the covenant. Kelly mounts what he apparently thinks is a devastating critique of the New Perspective with a paragraph that concludes, Maybe [the Pharisees] considered such works to be badges of membership in Israel; external markers of the covenant people and proofs that they already had the grace of God, but Jesus does not seem to think so!
He continues by showing how Jesus undermines first century religiosity, quoting from Matt 5-7. Then he moves into a discussion of John 8, concluding: Clearly he [i.e., Jesus] did not accept that their keeping of such covenantal boundary markers as circumcision, Sabbath and food laws kept them in the covenant as the seed of Abraham. He moves to Pauls teaching in Romans 1-2 regarding the universality of human sinfulness before concluding with an assessment of John 3.
Throughout the discussion, Kelly directs invectives against non-existent opponents. Based on Kellys comments, one would think that Dunn and Wright hold to the sufficiency of the external boundary markers for Jewish salvation. One would expect to find a word of comfort to those whose adherence to circumcision and other covenant markers is divinely judged to be external rather than internal. One would expect to see on every page that keeping the boundary markers of traditional Judaism meant one was already in the covenant, not needing to be justified in order to enter it. One would expect to find a denial of Jesus admonition to Nicodemus that believing in Christ is the only way for salvation.
In fact, however, none of these things can be found in the writings of Dunn and Wright. The implication of Kellys article is that Wright and Dunn are two way theologians, who think that Jewish righteousness makes them acceptable before God, leaving the work of Christ to do some unspecified business of bringing others in.
Kellys entire critique is built upon the mistaken premise that Dunn and Wright agree with the Jewish self-conception of their own righteousness before God. What we find in their writings, however, is that both Dunn and Wright understand Paul to be telling the Jewish people that confidence in legally defined covenant status is utterly wrongheaded.
Moreover, Kelly assumes that covenantal nomism as a Christian pattern of religion does not differ at all from covenantal nomism as a Jewish pattern of religion. This is not the case. Dunn finds Pauls critique of Judaism to lie precisely in its reliance on those external identity markers as indicators of their righteous standing before God.
The following quotes establish the points of the two preceding paragraphs:
Dunn says that Paul converted (a) from a Judaism that was separating itself from the wider world and understood the Torah in part at least as reinforcing and protecting that separateness (Theology of Paul the Apostle, 348); (b) from the Phariseess desire to separate themselves, that is, presumably, from their less faithful contemporaries, and by their desire to keep the law with scrupulous accuracy and exactness; and, in keeping with this, from the Pharisaic standard of blameless righteousness (Phil. 3.6) recalling the previous character of his life as lived within the terms of Israels covenant with God (349); and (c) from zeal to maintain Israels distinctives (351).
In other words, Kelly is wrong to imply that Dunn believes first-century Jews were correct to rely on their external, community delimiting signs as indicators of right standing before God. This, Dunn says, is precisely what Paul converted from.
Fittingly, Wright makes as much, if not more, of Jewish sinfulness in Romans 1-2 as does Kelly: Paul has had Israel in mind all along, hinting darkly in chap. 1 that his fellow Jews were as guilty of idolatry as were the pagans, strongly suggesting in 2:1-16 that their would-be superiority was not better than that of the pagan moralists (Romans, in New Interpreters Bible, 10:445).
From Kellys portrayal, one would never guess that Wright would undermine the sufficiency of the would be superiority of the Jews, but that is precisely what he understands Paul to be doing time and time again. Against the Jewish conception of superiority based on fleshly descent from Abraham, Wright reads Paul in Rom 4 as arguing rather that Abraham is indeed the father of the covenant people of God, but he is not the father according to the flesh. He is the father of all, Gentile and Jew alike, who believe in the God who raised Jesus (10:487).
Kellys critique misses the mark time and again because he does not allow that both Dunn and Wright recognize the massive critique of Jewish covenantal nomism inherent in Paul. Kelly assumes that if covenantal nomism itself is not being critiqued, that Judaism itself is being left alone.
On the contrary, Dunn and especially Wright recognize the radical critique that God himself brings against these external identity markers by the very fact that faith in the crucified and risen Christ is required for entry into the people of God and for final, eschatological salvation.
With Wright, the Westminster Standards affirm that we are a covenant people. Moreover, we are a community that is defined by faith. Who is it that receives the sign and seal of engrafting into the covenant of grace? Believers (i.e., those who have faith) and their children (WLC Q/A 62, 162, 166).
Why are we to obey the commandments of God? Because he is our God and redeemer (WSC Q/A 44). In other words, describing Christianity as covenantal nomism is by no means antithetical to the pattern of religion found in the Westminster Standards: indicative precedes imperative. We obey because God has bound us to himself in Christ.
II. Righteousness, Faith and Atonement
Kellys critique of the New Perspective creates a fear that New Perspective scholars have little to no place for the wrath of God in their theology, that atonement is a negotiable commodity, that faith is left out in the cold, and that all hope of being found righteous is lost through a discussion of boundary markers. None of these fears is legitimate.
A. Wrath of God & Atonement
Wright roundly affirms wrath as a necessary piece of our conception of Gods stance toward a fallen world:
God is the creator and lover of the world. This God has a passionate concern for creation, and humans in particular, that will tolerate nothing less than the best for them. The result is wrathnot just a settled attitude of hostility toward idolatry and immorality, but actions that follow from such an attitude when the one to whom it belongs is the sovereign creator. The content of this wrath is not merely the process (described in Rom. 1) of Gods giving people up to the result of their own folly. That, rather, is simply the anticipation of the final judgment itself, the death spoken of in Rom. and the ultimate judgment described in Rom. 2:5-6, 9 (NIB,10:431).
Similarly, we read the following in Dunn:
But for Paul, as for his Jewish forbears, the wrath of God here is hardly different from the wrath of final judgment, just and true. And from the indictment which explains Rom. 1.18, it is clear that for Paul the wrath of God denotes the inescapable, divinely ordered moral constitution of human society, Gods reaction to evil and sin. Gods righteousness as creator, the obligations appropriate to him as creator, has determined that human actions have moral consequences. (Theology of Paul, 42)
Very well, these two scholars have a biblical view of the wrath of God. How, then, is this related to their respective views on the atonement?
In his Romans commentary, Wright gives a rich exposition of the sacrificial work of Jesus broached by Paul in -26:
[In referring to Jesus as hilasterion, Paul is] alluding to Jesus as the place where the holy God and sinful Israel meet, in such a way that Israel, rather than being judged, receives atonement (NIB 10:474).
The major point to be made here is that in Isaiah 40-55 we have a sustained exposition of the righteousness of God, focused more and more tightly on a suffering figure who represents Israel and fulfills YHWHs purpose of being a light to the nations and whose sufferings and death are finally seen in explicitly sacrificial terms (NIB 10:475).
The significance of Isaiah 40-55 here lies in its ability to tie together and explain what otherwise is inexplicable, namely why Paul should imagine that the death of Jesus, described in sacrificial terms, should be supposed not only to reveal the righteousness of God but also to deal properly, i.e. punitively, with sins. The idea of punishment as a part of atonement is itself deeply controversial But it is exactly this idea that Paul states (NIB 10:476).
Dealing with wrath or punishment is propitiation; with sin, expiation Vehement rejection of the former idea in many quarters has led some to insist that only expiation is in view here. But the fact remains that in 1:18-3:20 Paul has declared that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and wickedness those who are Christs are rescued from wrath; and the passage in which the reason for the change is stated is 3:25-26, where we find that God, though in forbearance allowing sins to go unpunished for a while, has now revealed that righteousness, that saving justice, that caused people to be declared righteous even though they were sinners (NIB 10:476).
It is difficult to imagine an exposition of these verses which more closely ties together Gods just wrath, the atoning death of Christ, and the resultant righteousness for sinful humanity.
Similarly, though without the direct connections between wrath and atonement, Dunn begins his section on Christ Crucified (§9 of Theology of Paul) with the following:
There can be no doubt as to where the center of gravity of Pauls theology is to be found. It lies in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We have already noted how Paul, having completed his indictment in Romans (1.18-3.20) turned at once, not to Jesus life or teaching, but to his function as the God-provided expiation for sins past and present (208).
Dunn further underscores the significance of the sacrificial imagery that Paul associates with Jesuss work on the cross (§9.3 Pauls theology of atoning sacrifice).
Therefore, Kelly is simply mistaken when, speaking of the need for Jesus blood to turn away Gods wrath he writes: This final reality is not seriously dealt with by Dunn and Wright.
B. Faith, Righteousness, and Boundary Markers
It may very well be that Kelly on the one hand and Dunn and Wright on the other have diverging views about the relationships among faith, righteousness and boundary markers. If this is the case, however, it is a problem that is exacerbated, if not created entirely, by an exclusion of the Calvin, Gaffin, and arguably Westminster Confession position that views justification as a facet of the benefits accorded us through our union with Christ.
I begin with Gaffin: The justifying aspect of being raised with Christ does not rest on the believers subjective enlivening and transformation but on the resurrection-approved righteousness of Christ which is his (and is thus reckoned his) by virtue of the vital union established (Resurrection and Redemption, 132).
In other words, a believer is righteous because he is united with Jesus Christ, the Righteous.
Gaffin continues: If anything, this outlook which makes justification exponential of existential union with the resurrected Christ serves to keep clear what preoccupation with the idea of imputation can easily obscure, namely, that the justification of the ungodly is not arbitrary but according to truth: it is synthetic with respect to the believer only because it is analytic with respect to Christ (as resurrected). Not justification by faith but union with the resurrected Christ by faith (of which union, to be sure, the justifying aspect stands out perhaps most prominently) is the central motif of Pauls applied soteriology (ibid.).
This is a difficult paragraph, but what Gaffin is saying is that a believer, by faith, participates in Christ. Because the believer participates in Christ, who was justified, the believer is also justified. In other words, justification is derivative of being united to Christ by faith, it is a facet of our union with Christ (cf. Resurrection and Redemption, 127).
Recently, Gaffin has made it clear that he views this union with Christ soteriology as of a piece with the theology of John Calvin. In his recent lecture celebrating his appointment to the Krahe Chair of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Gaffin said the following about Calvins ordo salutis:
Calvin says we must climb higher and there consider the secret energy of the Spirit. Faith is Spirit-worked. The union is forged by the Spirits work of faith in us: faith that puts on Christ (Gal 3). Faith is the bond of the union seen from our side. The Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ binds us to himself. This is Calvins ordo: union with Christ by Spirit-worked faith.
The implication is that our justification, sanctification, adoption and other benefits of redemption are all aspects of our union with Christ. In the same lecture, Gaffin argues for a similar theological infrastructure beneath the Westminster Larger Catechism:
The Larger Catechism is saying that union and communion with Christ are most basic, encompassing all other benefits. 66: Its being joined to Christ, union is effected spiritually/mystically. It is being drawn to Jesus (67), truly coming to Jesus Christ (68). In addressing the union in grace that believers have, Question and Answer 69 speaks of justification, adoption and anything else that comes from union with Him. Union with Christ is not put in series with other benefits mentioned In the Westminster Standards, the thing that underlies other benefits is union with Christ.
The claim here is that Gaffins own project in Resurrection and Redemption is a faithful witness to the union with Christ ordo salutis that undergirds the theology of Calvin and the Westminster Standards. In all three, justification is seen as one wonderful result of faith-union with Christ.
Once we recognize this faithful, Pauline strand of teaching in our Reformed tradition, then the lines drawn between faith, righteousness and community in Wright and Dunn become much less problematic. More positively, they provide assessments of Pauls letters that can greatly enrich those of us who proudly profess our Reformed heritage.
Kelly begins his discussion on Justification with the question, Is it true, according to the teaching of Jesus and Paul, that keeping the boundary markers of traditional Judaism meant one was already in the covenant ? Contrary to Kellys implication, Wright would answer, No! Of course not!
In Wrights introduction to Romans 4 in his commentary, he writes, Paul is arguing, then, that Abrahams faith is the sole badge of membership in Gods people, and that therefore all those who share it are justified (10:488). The Latin translation of faith sole might sound something like sola fide.
At least on this formal level, there is agreement between Wright and the Reformed tradition. Wright is neither a Roman Catholic or a semi-Pelagian in disguise. Membership in the people of Godwhat the Reformed tradition calls union with Christand the justification that follow from this, are both based solely on faith.
In not allowing for the notion of boundary markers to be radically redefined by the work of Christ, Kelly misses the base-level compatibility between Wrights assessment of justification and that of the Calvin-Westminster-Murray-Gaffin tradition. Wright comments on Rom 4:25:
The resurrection unveils to the surprised world, Israel included, that this was after all the age-old saving plan of the creator God. In particular it declares, as in a lawcourt, that God has vindicated Jesus. Jesus is shown to be in the right. His life and death were the true faithfulness for which God had created Israel in the first place. Thus, if faithful Jesus is demonstrated to be Messiah by the resurrection, the resurrection also declares in principle that all those who belong to Jesus, all those who respond in faith to Gods faithfulness revealed in him, are themselves part of the true covenant family promised to Abraham (10:504).
Note well: Wright claims that this verse is the foundation of the whole argument that has come before (10:502). He does not envision the exposition quoted above as an anomalous piece of reflection on Pauls thought. He believes that here he is at the heart of the matter.
Certain elements of Wrights exposition bear pointing out: 1) justification is forensic; 2) it is a matter of participation in the justification of Jesus, given him at the resurrection; 3) this is the fulfillment of Gods covenant promise to Abraham. All three of these points, which accurately summarize Wrights view of justification, cohere perfectly with the union-with-Christ soteriology that Calvin, Westminster Larger Catechism, John Murray and Richard Gaffin promulgate.
When we see that the boundary being marked is belonging to Jesus, then we are not left with the soft view of salvation, incapable of dealing with Gods indignation against sin, that Kelly has created. Kelly tries to contrast faith as a boundary marker (Wright) with faith as the only way to be reckoned righteous (Paul). This false dichotomy is engendered by a failure to account for the necessity of faith uniting believers to the justified Christ as the substance of our justification.
I will deal with Dunn much more briefly. He writes: So in 4.4-5 he probably refers to the fundamentally gracious character of all Gods dealings with humans, including Israels election. And from that agreed principle he draws the conclusion that it can only be faith which is reckoned as righteous. In short, it is certainly correct to draw the great Reformation principle of justification directly from Rom. 4.4-5 (Theology of Paul, 367).
And in a similar vein: Whatever Paul was warning against, the thrust of his positive advocacy is clear. The means by which individuals respond to the gospel and experience its offered blessings is faith, trust (pistis) (ibid., 371).
And again, This, then, is what Paul meant by justification by faith, by faith alone. It was a profound conception of the relation between God and humankinda relation of utter dependence, of unconditional trust God would not justify, could not sustain in relationship with him, those who did not rely wholly on him. Justification was by faith, by faith alone.
The label New Perspective on Paul is apt. New perspective is the view that one encounters when one stands on different ground to get a glimpse of something he has previously been seen only from an old, familiar angle. The different advocates of this movement are all standing on the ground of first century Judaism, and trying, from that vantage point, to understand why and in what way it is that Paul insists on Jesus as the only way of salvation for both Jew and Greek.
This new perspective on Paul does not amount to a new teaching which overthrows the old. Rather, what Calvin, Westminster, Murray and Gaffin have been telling us all along is now to be seen against a different relief, drawing out different contours and hues.
There is much that I find to disagree with in the writings of Sanders, Dunn and Wright, but all three may be profitably read by thoughtful pastors and laypeople who are willing to engage in the intellectual rigor required to have the age-old formulations of the church garnished with the new light that the Holy Ghost is shedding on His word.
Daniel Kirk is a candidate under care of Eastern Carolina Presbytery, a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Penn., and a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at DukeUniversity.
"The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's movie of the last 12 hours of Christ, has generated much discussion on a number of levels in the media and culture. Within the Christian community the reception of the movie has generally been favorable. The discussion in the Christian community has been on areas like the faithfulness of the movie to the text of the Gospels and the propriety of a man playing the role of Jesus. This last issue raises the question of the meaning and application of the 2nd Commandment.
Our present discussion has a number of questions: How should this movie be understood and defined? Is it edifying or idolatrous? Are there other issues to consider about this movie? You are invited to participate by reading and responding to these and other issues on the movie.