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Righteousness and the NPP

As I’ve mentioned before, I passed my comps last August and now I’m entering the dissertation phase of my Ph.D. work at Fuller. When I last blogged about this, I said that I wanted to do something in the whole area of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), but that I needed time to do more reading and narrow down my topic to one particular aspect of the NPP. I think I’ve finally zeroed in on my topic, and I will explain what it is in a minute. But first, let me say that I’m convinced that the NPP is fundamentally a distortion of Paul’s gospel. Although the Reformation tradition certainly is not perfect and has areas that need sharpening and refinement in light of modern biblical scholarship, I am in agreement with Stephen Westerholm when he famously said that any NT scholar who thinks they have nothing to learn from Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy. The Old Perspective on Paul is not without its imperfections and blind spots at certain points, but it is far closer to the truth than the New Perspective.

What is needed is a rehabilitation (and, where necessary, refinement) of the Old Perspective on Paul on a solid foundation of painstaking, objective exegetical labor informed by deep knowledge of Paul’s first century Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. As I have been immersing myself in the literature of the NPP, I have come to think that there are two main issues that need to be addressed if we are to accomplish this goal. First, we must answer E. P. Sanders’s claim that the Judaism of Paul’s context was not a legalistic religion that taught salvation by works of merit. Second, we must investigate the notion, defended by James Dunn and N. T. Wright, that Paul’s “righteousness” language (verb, noun, and adjective) is informed primarily by a relational or covenantal significance due to its origin within an OT/Jewish matrix.  

Some very good work has already been done in response to Sanders and critiquing his notion that the Judaism of Paul’s day was “covenantal nomism” (e.g., Elliott, Das, Gathercole, and many others), but to my knowledge little has been done on the second issue which has more to do with lexical semantics. Therefore, I have chosen to tackle the second problem by writing a dissertation that will subject the Hebraic/relational interpretation of Paul’s “righteousness” terminology to critical examination.

The Hebraic/relational view goes back to a seminal treatise by Hermann Cremer published in 1899 (second edition, 1900) titled Die paulinische Rechtfertigungslehre im Zusammenhange ihrer geschichtlichen Voraussetzungen. I translate this as The Pauline Doctrine of Justification in the Context of its Historical Presuppositions. By “historical presuppositions,” Cremer means primarily the usage of “righteousness” in the Old Testament and in post-biblical Jewish literature. Cremer was one of the first to argue that Paul’s usage of “righteousness” is not governed by standard Greek usage but by its usage in the OT, where it has a relational or covenantal meaning as opposed to the alleged abstract, ethical meaning in secular Greek. The idea is that “righteousness” does not signify conformity to an abstract norm but the fulfilling of one’s obligations as defined within a particular relationship. When applied to “the righteousness of God,” God’s righteousness is his faithfulness to the covenant. In German theology, scholars tend to speak of God’s Gemeinschaftstreue (faithfulness to the community, i.e., Israel) or his Bundestreue (covenant faithfulness). 

Cremer further argued that not only does God’s righteousness refer to God’s covenant faithfulness, but that in many instances, particularly in the Psalms and Deutero-Isaiah, it refers specifically to God’s saving activity (Heilshandeln) by which he intervenes in history to redeem his people, thus fulfilling his obligations to the covenant. Taking this concept and applying it to Paul, Cremer argued that in the key Pauline texts that speak of “the righteousness of God” (Rom 1:17; 3:5, 21ff; 10:3; 2 Cor 5:21) the “of God” is a subjective genitive and that the whole phrase refers to God’s covenant faithfulness as manifested in his saving or justifying activity in Christ.

Cremer’s revolutionary argument has had a deep and lasting impact on theological and biblical studies throughout the 20th century. His ideas were well received by OT scholars, in particular Gerhard von Rad and Walther Eichrodt, both of whom devote sections in their OT theologies to the Cremer theory. On the NT side, Adolf Schlatter wrote a commentary on Romans titled The Righteousness of God (1935) which relied on Cremer’s interpretation. The next major appropriation of Cremer’s theory by a major NT scholar was the brilliant contribution of Ernst Käsemann in his famous 1961 essay, “‘The Righteousness of God’ in Paul.” Käsemann argued that the righteousness of God must not be reduced to the gift-aspect, which is the dominant theme in Luther’s interpretation, i.e., the gift of imputed righteousness given to the believer. Rather, Käsemann spoke of “the power-character of the gift” (der Machtcharakter der Gabe) and argued that the righteousness of God is his covenant faithfulness, not merely to Israel but to the entire creation, by which he engages in his saving activity to reclaim the world for himself and to bring it under his lordship. Salvation is not merely a reception of a divine gift but a change of lordship (Herrschaftswechsel) by which we are transferred out of the lordship of sin under the reign of the first Adam into the lordship-realm of Christ the second Adam. Justification and sanctification are therefore indistinguishable, merely two sides of the same coin.

All of this flows from his fundamental presupposition that the phrase “the righteousness of God” was a technical term or fixed formula in apocalyptic Judaism that Paul radicalized and universalized in light of the Christ event. Käsemann himself did not spend a whole lot of energy trying to prove this point, but his student, Peter Stuhlmacher, filled in the lacuna by writing his dissertation on the subject in 1965 (second edition, 1966), although Stuhlmacher would later admit that he had overstated his claim that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ was a fixed formula. 

There are many other lesser scholars to be noted along the way, but I think you get the picture. There is a more-or-less direct line from Cremer to Käsemann to the NPP as articulated by Dunn and Wright. There are, of course, some important differences where the NPP takes the Cremer theory in new directions. For example, Dunn and Wright not only argue that “the righteousness of God” is his covenant faithfulness, but they interpret the verb “to justify” to mean “to declare someone to be a member of the covenant.” This is a new application or extension of the Cremer theory but it is perfectly consistent with it. Furthermore, both Dunn and Wright have added the new twist that “the works of the law” refers to Jewish boundary markers. In so doing, they interpret Paul’s slogan that “one is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Christ” to mean that one is not reckoned as a member of the covenant people by the badge of Jewish practices. This is what leads the NPP to reinterpret Paul’s Rechtfertigungslehre as a fundamentally social doctrine calling the church to be radically inclusive.

(In my view this is dangerous because it denies or at least downplays the soteriological and eschatological significance of justification as God’s act - on the basis of Christ’s atoning obedience unto death - of reckoning individual sinners as righteous in God’s sight and thus worthy of attaining eternal life in the age to come. In the NPP, and despite recent attempts to have their cake and eat it too, sociology and ecclesiology have trumped soteriology and eschatology. The fundamental human problem has switched from guilt before a holy God to the problems of racism, social exclusion, and ecumenical relations. This plays right into the hands of the renewed social gospel that we are now seeing in the emergent community.)

My dissertation, then, will be a critique of the Hebraic/relational interpretation of Paul’s righteousness terminology from Cremer to the NPP, with a special focus on the underlying lexical semantics of the question. Can the word “righteousness” mean “covenant faithfulness”? Can the word “to justify” mean “to reckon someone as a member of the covenant”? I don’t think they can bear these meanings, and that, in fact, the traditional understanding does a much better job of explaining all of the data, including the usage of these terms in Paul’s OT and Jewish context.

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