D.A. Carson on the New Perspective

D. A. Carson was invited by Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) to give a set of lectures on the New Perspective on Paul, a controversial theological movement that has gained in importance in Reformed circles.Carson first addressed the history of the New Perspective on Paul and the principle figures. The movement was kicked off in 1963 by Stendahl’s work The Introspective Conscience of the West. Stendahl’s thesis was that our post-Reformation heritage has led us to read guilt back into the Bible when it isn’t there, so that we can then posit a salvation to address the guilt. He argues that the New Testament does not really concern itself with the level of guilt that those in the Reformed tradition have assigned to it. This work was considered a breakthrough at the time. E. P. Sanders contributed the crucial work Paul and Palestinian Judaism. This book asserted that the concept of “seeing one’s good works and one’s bad works hanging in a balance” at the end of one’s life really was not present until the 4th century, and that those who have read this idea back into 1st-century writings have done shoddy historical work. Sanders claims that the massively legalistic Judaism that we see from Paul’s writings was really not in existence, and that instead, what existed was a pattern of religion called Covenantal Nomism (an approach to law that is determined by a certain covenantal relationship). Sanders insists that Covenantal Nomism covered all branches of Judaism in the 1st century. These eight points sum up Covenantal Nomism: A. God has chosen Israel; B. And given her the law. C. This law implies both God’s promise to maintain his election of Israel; D. And their requirement to obey. E. God rewards obedience and punishes transgressions. F. The law also provides for means of atonement; G. The maintenance and re-establishment of covenantal relationships. H. All who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, the atonement, and God’s mercy will persevere to the end This, Sanders holds, is the background against which Paul was contending. According to Sanders, Paul could not have been setting up “grace vs. law,” because the Jews themselves at this time saw themselves as being chosen by grace, but in a sense still maintained by an obedience of faith. Therefore, Sanders says, the main difference between Paul and Judaism is not faith vs. works or grace vs. law, but the question of who the person of Jesus is. James Dunn is another important figure in this discussion. His main thesis as it regards Paul is that Paul was not fighting against legalism but against nationalism. Dunn argues that the “boundary markers” that made Jews distinct from Gentiles were Paul’s main issues; Paul was not as interested in matters of personal guilt before God as he was in removing these boundary markers so that all believers, Jew and Gentile, could commune together. Perhaps the theologian who has recently received the most exposure on the New Perspective issue is N. T. Wright. For Wright, questions of justification in Paul’s writing all go back to the exile of the Jews to Babylon. Wright posits that Jews thought themselves to still be in the exile in the 1st century, because many of the spectacular promises from God about the end of the exile did not occur when they returned from Babylon. In Wright’s view, Paul saw faith in Christ as resolving this issue: that the exile ended in the death of the Messiah, and the corporate guilt of the covenant community had been paid for by Christ. According to Wright, Paul viewed justification as God’s declarative act to the effect that you are in the covenant. Another position that should be addressed is the more moderate position of Don Garlington and Scott Hafemann. While not necessarily considered to be a part of the New Perspective, this view is still leaning in that direction. The main idea in this view is that the good works that a Christian does as a result of their salvation are not only attesting evidence of that person’s salvation but serve somehow also as grounds of their salvation. Those who hold to this position believe that in the Old Testament, God did not necessarily require perfection, but covenantal faithfulness; therefore, they take Romans 2 to mean that faithfulness to the law was a live option and achieved by some. Obviously, this view is difficult to justify considering the rest of Scripture, but Carson did not go into the specifics of the refutation of this position. Carson pointed out next that there were a large number of different domains touched upon when discussing these issues. First, one must have a good understanding of historical theology, especially of the theology of Luther and Calvin. Many of the stereotypes of what’s bad about Luther and Calvin are used to make the New Perspective look good, but the strengths of the New Perspective are actually found in Luther and Calvin (sometimes those holding to the New Perspective get their information on the Reformers from very derivative sources, instead of going to the writings themselves). Another area that one must have knowledge in is that of second-temple Judaism. Sanders was correct in pointing out that merit theology was not, contrary to popular belief at the time, a prevalent thought-pattern in the first century. He makes the mistake, however, of insisting that covenantal nomism was the prevalent thought-pattern at this time, when really second-temple Judaism was much more diverse, and did not operate under just one prevalent thought-pattern. To illustrate this point, Carson told of the ways in which Josephus spoke of grace in his writings, showing that Josephus did in fact have a sense of grace being poured out on those who merited it, and not on those who didn’t. Thus, it is clear that not everyone at that time was operating under covenantal nomism. The sense in which first-century Jews understood being saved by grace was a very different sense from the one we believe; it was not the grace of individual salvation but had to do with the corporate call of Israel in Deuteronomy 7 or 10. (As an aside, Carson told that many of those advocating the view of covenantal nomism have asked why those opposing the view are so upset, and have claimed that they are only saying that covenantal nomism was found in first-century Judaism; but these advocates, in fact, did not simply say that covenantal nomism was found in first-century Judaism, but claimed that it was the only thing found there and therefore the only way to read Paul.) Another methodological question that has to be raised is that of parallelomania and parallelophobia. Sanders’ approach seems to foster a lot of parallelomania, finding parallels everywhere in similar passages and in the historical background, and then reading the passage in light of those parallels. (Parallelophobia is the act of trying so hard to read the text out of its historical context that you become afraid of any parallels.) Sanders’ argument is that second-temple Judaism was controlled by covenantal nomism. But even if this is the case, it doesn’t prove that Paul must be read as advocating covenantal nomism; in fact, there is just as strong a possibility that he would be speaking out against it! The matter of sin makes this especially clear. Second-temple Judaism took sin much less seriously than Paul did; his writings argue that sin must be taken more seriously. They do not argue for the reader to have the same perspective on sin that second-temple Judaism had. Fourth, many word studies have been done by those opposing the New Perspective, looking to see if the concept of “justification” is often tied to the concept of “covenant” (as those supporting the New Perspective claim it is). Exceedingly few instances of such a connection, however, have been found. Instead, the concept of “justification” is found tied scores of times to the concept of creational justice (that is, whether God holds his created beings to account for blessing or curse). Fifth, the concept of the exile must be addressed in more detail. Wright claims that all Jews around the first century had a strong sense of corporate guilt, and felt strongly that their exile had not ended because of that guilt. However, many extra-biblical sources documenting that time period show Jewish groups who did not believe they were still in exile or, if they did, thought themselves to be the faithful remnant who were exiled in spite of their own righteousness. The actual sources do not give a very strong picture of this huge sense of corporate guilt that Wright argues for. Further, Wright insists that the Reformed emphasis on individual guilt leans too heavily on psychologism, but in moving from individual guilt to corporate guilt, one does not move away from psychologism, but simply from an individual psychologism to a national psychologism. Also, Carson argues that the controversy that Paul mentions in Galatians seems to imply that the Jews thought (and communicated to the Gentiles) that they had some sort of “inside track with God” based on keeping the law, and the attraction for the Gentiles was this possibility of an “inside track.” Nowhere in Paul’s writings do the Gentiles see the Jews as having corporate guilt over the exile. Therefore, it seems, again, that not every group of Jews was ruled by the idea of covenantal nomism or exile-guilt. (Carson exegetes a complicated passage in Galatians to illustrate this fact, and comes to the conclusion that Paul is emphasizing, first and foremost, how a believer is justified before God, and that the issue of boundary markers between Jews and Gentiles, while a factor, is by far not Paul’s main emphasis.) In the third lecture, Carson chose a few passages (arbitrarily, as he insisted that there were many other equally helpful passages that he could have chosen to prove his points) to discuss in response to the claims of those in the New Perspective. First, Carson chose Romans 2. He argues against the idea that Gentiles may have some way of attaining salvation (because they are made in the image of God and having a knowledge of what is right and wrong) apart from Christ. He argues that Paul’s emphasis in this passage is original sin, the fallenness of the entire human race, and the inability of anyone (Jew or Gentile) to be saved apart from the grace of Christ. Carson showed that Paul makes it obvious in this passage not that anyone has a chance to achieve salvation without Christ, but that the fact that people do have an understanding of what is right and wrong in fact condemns them further, because they always choose the wrong. Carson laid out four things that Paul set out in these verses: First, Paul sets forth the revelation of God’s righteousness and its relation to the Old Testament. Paul writes that the Old Testament bore witness to the righteousness of God and predicted the new covenant. A dichotomy cannot be made between a “wrathful God” of the Old Testament and a “loving God” of the New Testament; Carson argues that the descriptions both of God’s love and of God’s wrath are racheted up as one moves from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The passage shows that God’s righteousness has been disclosed apart from the old law covenant, not that God’s righteousness is entirely divorced from the law itself. Second, Paul sets forth the availability of God’s righteousness to all human beings without racial distinction but on condition of faith. Under the terms of the old covenant, the righteousness from God was primarily directed towards the Jews. But now this righteousness comes to all who have faith in Jesus Christ because all have sinned. Third, Paul insists that the source of God’s righteousness is in the gracious provision of Christ Jesus as the propitiation for our sins. Carson speaks of the concept of propitiation, that God must be “made propitious” for our sins to be forgiven. This is over and against the idea of “expiation,” in which sin is that which must be cancelled. Many have questioned how God can be both he who must be made propitious, and he who makes possible his own propitiation. Caron’s answer is this: “God is not the independent arbitrator of a system that is bigger than he (the way a judge is). He is always the most offended party in any sin and every sin we commit. In any sin we commit we are breaking the first commandment. And he is our judge. The law is not independent of him, it is what he makes it to be, and he absorbs it in himself in the person of his son in his own body on the tree. Within that framework you see how God becomes both the one who because of his very character loves such sinful people as we and the one whose wrath must be satisfied.” Fourth, Paul establishes the demonstration of the righteousness of God through the cross of Jesus Christ. Carson showed that the sins committed in the Old Testament really did go “unpunished” in a sense; even though people reaped the consequences of their sin, it was not ultimately punished as it would be eventually in hell. “The full punishment comes in hell itself…or it comes on the cross.” N. T. Wright again reads the concept of exile into these verses, but it is hard to justify this when looking at the text. Carson concluded this lecture with an outline of verses 27-ff in this passage, focusing on the glories of faith. (Despite his desire to address several different passages during this lecture, Carson only had time to address the Romans passage.) Carson’s last remarks were an invitation to read all of the passages mentioned during these lectures with one’s Bible and several commentaries open, to see if his conclusions are accurate. A question-and-answer session followed