Over the last three decades, a series of scholarly developments known as the “new perspective on Paul” has challenged traditional interpretations of the theology of the Pauline epistles, particularly Galatians and Romans as they have been employed in the post-Reformation debate concerning the relationship of faith, works, and salvation.
Important early contributors to the new perspective include E.P. Sanders and James D.G. Dunn, and their ideas have subsequently undergone substantial extension and revision by the evangelical New Testament scholar N.T. Wright.
In Western theology, at least from the time of Augustine, the “forensic” or law-court imagery has been central to the formulation of salvation as a foundational dogma in both the Protestant and Catholic churches. The new perspective invites us not to reject that model, but rather to think critically about how it would have functioned in the writing of Paul, a distinctively Jewish author of the first century.
One may identify three fundamental questions that the new perspective seeks to re-evaluate: First, what does it mean to be “justified,” and how does justification occur? Second, what is the “righteousness of God,” and how does it relate to our own righteousness? Third, where is the locus of the debate between “faith” and “works” in Paul’s letters to Rome and Galatia, and what implications does this issue have for modern readers?
First, justification. In Greek, “justified” is a verb related to the noun “righteousness,” and to “be justified” has historically been understood as the way by which we are “found righteous.”
For Jews of the second temple period, this amounted to an expectation of some future event within history where God would openly vindicate the nation of Israel, revealing that the Jewish people had been faithful worshipers of the one true God, YHWH. Thus, justification was essentially a corporate event and an eschatological event. One would be justified if one was found to be a member of the community of faithful followers of God on that future day when judgment would be rendered.
In later Christian theology, however, justification came to be increasingly understood as the individual event by which sinners were released from sin, and inducted into new life — thus, justification became identified as a word describing the way by which the individual was initiated into salvation. The new perspective encourages a return to the older understanding of justification, as the present-day promise that God will ultimately recognize the status of His chosen people and reward them for their faithfulness, and not as the process by which that promise is obtained.
Second, the righteousness of God. This phrase, used frequently by Paul but rarely elsewhere in the New Testament, has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways. The new perspective, especially in the work of Wright, has emphasized that this concept is only fully meaningful within the Jewish covenantal framework. God’s “righteousness” is not simply His formal activity as a punisher of evil and rewarder of good, nor His intrinsic holiness, but a quality of the execution of His specific responsibilities under the covenant formed with Abraham, renewed through Moses, and claimed as an inheritance by all of Abraham’s descendants.
As such, one cannot properly speak of righteousness as if it were a metaphysical entity that could be transferred, whether “imputed” or “imparted.” Righteousness is a verdict, not a substance. One deems a judge “righteous” if he renders judgment fairly and impartially, in accordance with valid laws and contracts. A defendant, on the other hand, is declared “righteous” if a judge rules in his favor. God’s righteousness belongs to a completely different category than our righteousness, and cannot be separated from Him nor shared with anyone else.
So then, third, the long-standing debate over “faith” and “works” may be revisited with a refreshed awareness of the significance of the terms involved, challenging both sides to revise their traditional assumptions. The theme of justification, as addressed in Romans and Galatians, should not be viewed as a primer on how one “becomes saved,” but rather as Paul’s attempt to provide guidance to churches with both Jewish and non-Jewish members concerning the redefinition of the boundaries of “God’s chosen people.”
The Jewish people, struggling to preserve their identity in the face of pagan oppression and dilution, had developed a strong emphasis on cultural boundary-markers such as circumcision. Paul, alarmed that such ritualism is now serving as a wedge between communal affirmation of the salvation shared by people of all races and cultures, critiques the misuse of the Law in this way. He emphasizes that justification — confidence of one’s identity as a member of the people of God — is not based on these sorts of works, but on the faith response to God’s gospel common to Jews and Gentiles alike.
Justification is “through faith alone,” in the sense that additional customs and rituals are not necessary to delineate the boundaries of the new Christ-centered body of believers. But salvation (the process by which we are saved) should not be reduced to justification (the declaration that we have been saved) — and thus the rejection of specific “works” (in the narrow sense of ritualistic observances) as mandatory, in the context of the justification debate, should not be taken as a blanket rejection of any positive relationship between faith and works (in the broad sense of applied ethics and obedience to God), as if they were mutually exclusive polar opposites.