In any debate, discussion, or conversation, it is important to know who the players are. While we have briefly touched on Luther above, we begin with him as we introduce each of the major players in this ongoing discussion.
Luther was not the first “Lutheran” reader of Paul. Augustine was. Westerholm says, “Whether we should say that Augustine’s Paul was ‘Lutheran’ or that Luther’s Paul was Augustinian is a moot point.[ref]Westerholm, Perspectives, 20.[/ref] He also suggests six theses of Luther that are under attack as distorting Paul.
- In our relationship with God, faith in his goodness rather than the good works we do is decisive.
- The law, like a mighty hammer, is meant to crush human self-righteousness and to drive human beings, made aware of their sinfulness, to seek mercy from the Savior.
- We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, not by the works we do.
- Though believers are righteous in God’s eyes, they remain sinners throughout their earthly lives.
- The law must be banished from the thinking of believers when their relationship with God is the issue. Yet it must continue its role in identifying and judging their sin.
- God predestined believers to salvation.[ref]Westerholm. 22-23.[/ref]
“What Luther means by ‘law’ is not always transparent.[ref]Westerholm. 27-29.[/ref] He seems to have three distinct usages: a law of nature; the Mosaic code, the law divided into two kingdoms, first, temporal and visible and, second, spiritual; and Scripture wherever it places requirements on people.[ref]Westerholm. 27-29.[/ref] For Luther, the whole of Scripture can be seen under two rubrics; “command and promise…or — in his preferred terminology — law and gospel.”[ref]Ibid., 28-29.[/ref] For Luther, the Old Testament shows what one must do or not do and is illustrated by stories of how the laws are broken or kept. The New Testament is the proclamation of the grace given through Jesus. The words “not by works of the Law” for Luther refers to the deeds required by the Mosaic Law and imply that nothing one can do can gain justification.
What was the gospel of Christ, according to Luther and all subsequent Protestants? That humankind enjoys that acceptance with God called “justification,” the beginning and end of salvation, not through his own moral effort even the smallest and slightest degree but entirely and only through the loving mercy of God made available in the merits of Christ and of his saving death on the Cross. This was not a process of gradual ethical improvement but an instantaneous transaction, somewhat like a marriage, in which Christ the bridegroom takes to himself an impoverished and wrenched harlot and confers upon her all the riches, which are his. The key to this transaction was faith, defined as a total and trustful commitment of the self to God, and in itself not a human achievement but the pure gift of God. “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God”: fides ex auditu.[ref]James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 336. Dunn quotes in his Theology of Paul from Patrick Collinson’s response to the question. This quote itself is from “The Late Medieval Church and Its Reformation 1400-1600,” in J. McManners, The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (New York: Oxford, 1990), 255-259.[/ref]
Dunn sees the consequences of Luther’s rediscovery of justification by faith as dramatic in theology, church, socially, and politically. He also sees a negative side to Luther’s rediscovery as an “unfortunate strain of anti-Judaism” in which “Paul’s teaching on justification was seen as a reaction against and in opposition to Judaism.”[ref]Dunn, 336[/ref] Luther rejected a medieval church that offered salvation by merit and good works and assumed that this was the same as Paul’s rejection of Judaism in his day.[ref]Dunn, 30. “Luther made an explicit link: the church was tarnished with ‘Jewish legalism’; the Catholics’ “rules and regulation remind me of the Jews, and actually very much was borrowed from the Jews”; on faith and works, the doctrine of the church was a variation of the Jewish error that mere acts can win favour in God’s sight.” n. 7 page 337, cited by M. Saperstein, Moments of Crisis in Jewish-Christian Relations (London: SCM/Philadelphia: TPI, 1989).[/ref] Wright suggests that “Luther thought Paul was against the Law.”[ref]N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 137.[/ref]
E. P. Sanders
What scholars call “the Sanders revolution” was precipitated by the writing of his book Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, a watershed in Pauline studies. Wright says that Sanders[ref]Ed Parish Sanders is a New Testament scholar, and is one of the principal proponents of the New Perspective on Paul. He was the Arts and Sciences Professor of Religion at Duke University, North Carolina, from 1990 till his retirement in 2005.[/ref] “major point to which everything else is subservient, can be quite simply stated: Judaism in Paul’s day was not, as has regularly been supposed, a religion of legalist works-righteousness.”[ref]N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 18-19.[/ref]
Sanders begins his groundbreaking book by defining what he means by “patterns of religion,” which is part of his subtitle. For Sanders, “A pattern of religion defined positively, is the description of how a religion is perceived by its adherents to function. ‘Perceived to function’ has the sense not of what the adherent does on a day-to-day basis, but of how getting in and staying in are understood: the way in which a religion was understood to admit and retain members is considered to be the way it ‘functions.’”[ref]Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 17.[/ref]
For Sanders, there is a single “pattern of religion” that underlies Judaism of the Second Temple period. It is “covenantal nomism,” which is “the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established based on the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments while providing means of atonement for transgression.”[ref]Sanders, 75.[/ref] However, he does not believe that “covenantal nomism” is Paul’s “pattern of religion,” suggesting that Paul “presents an essentially different type of religiousness from any found in Palestinian Jewish literature.”[ref]Sanders, 543.[/ref]
For Paul, “Christianity is going to become a new form of covenantal nomism, a covenantal religion which one enters by baptism, membership in which provides salvation, which has a specific set of commandments, obedience to which (or repentance for the transgression of which) keeps one in the covenantal relationship, while repeated or heinous transgression removes one from membership.”[ref]Sanders, 513.[/ref]
Sanders goes on to say:
The heart of Paul’s thought is not that one ratifies and agrees to a covenant offered by God, becoming a member of a group with a covenantal relation with God and remaining in it on the conditions of proper behaviour; but that one dies with Christ, obtaining new life and the initial transformation which leads to the resurrection and ultimate transformation, that one is a member of the body of Christ and one Spirit with him, and that one remains so unless one breaks the participatory union by forming another.[ref]Sanders, 514[/ref]
Wright suggests that Sanders has cut the ground from under the majority reading of Paul, especially in mainline Protestantism.[ref]Wright, What Paul Really Said, 19-20.[/ref]
N. T. Wright
Wright was one of the first to espouse the new perspective on Paul in a paper published in the Tyndale Bulletin in 1978.[ref] Westerholm, Perspectives, 179. “The Paul and History and the Apostle of Faith.” Tyndale Bulletin 29 (1978): 61-88. This paper was not reviewed in this appendix. But according to Westerholm “much of what Wright has written about Paul was anticipated already in that early article.”[/ref] For Wright, Paul did not charge the Jews with supposing that they could merit the favor of God by the keeping of Torah. He rather criticized Israel’s “relentless pursuit of national, ethnic and territorial identity” working toward becoming like other pagan nations who carried boundary markers.[ref] Wright, What Paul Really Said, 84. [/ref]
According to Wright, the concept of justification by faith was not Paul’s gospel because Paul was not answering the question of how an individual can be “saved” or enjoys a right relationship with God. Justification was not about how an individual in the first century established a relationship with God. Rather, it was about the “eschatological definition” of who was a member of God’s people. It was more about ecclesiology than soteriology.[ref]Ibid., 119.[/ref]
In Galatians, justification is the belief, which insists that everyone who follows Jesus belongs at the same table no matter what their race may be.[ref]Ibid., 122.[/ref] One did not become justified by following a set of legal requirements, but being justified was about who was included and who was excluded in the people of God.[ref]Wright, Climax, 137. Wright believes that “Luther thought Paul was against the Law.”[/ref]
In Wright’s more popular commentary on Galatians[ref]N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, 2 vols. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 23-27.[/ref] in the “for Everyone” series, he says, “we Jews…even though we were born into the covenant family, do not now find our real identity as God’s people through the things which mark us out as a distinctive people–that is, through the Jewish law.”[ref]Wright., 26.[/ref]Being “in” Jesus means that one has lost their previous identity markers because they have become irrelevant. Wright suggests that Paul argues that “we are no longer defined by possession of the law, or by its detailed requirements that set Jews over against Gentiles.”[ref]Wright., 26.[/ref] The argument with Peter had to do with table fellowship. Fellowship around the table was one of the identity markers of Judaism that had to be expanded if one was truly going to become a new creation. Table fellowship demanded that both Jews and Gentiles could sit at the same table as a symbol of this new creation. This has profound implications for the church today. Who does the church exclude or include in its fellowship? While the church says that it is open to all, is it really? What ethnic groups are excluded from “white” churches? What ethnic groups are “excluded” from black churches? Why are there Asian and Hispanic churches? Why is the church in USAmerica the most segregated church in the world?[ref]The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is reported to have once said “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”[/ref]
As a grammatical note, Wright says (as does Dunn, see below) that “to judaize” describes what the Jewish Christians were doing to the Gentile Christians, i.e., “they were judaizing them” is not strictly the right use of the word. Rather, “judaize” is what pagans do when they become Jews. If you were a pagan and you became a Jew, you are “judaizing.” Jewish Christians were not trying to get Galatians to “judaize,” but pagans becoming Jews were being judaized.[ref]N. T. Wright, “Jesus, Paul and Israel” (Vancouver, BC: Regent Audio 1986). https://www.regentaudio.com/collections/all-videos/products/paul-jesus-the-people-of-israel[/ref] This suggests that there was no “judaizing party” who was following Paul across the Mediterranean world trying to undo his message to the Gentiles.
James D. G. Dunn
Dunn’s thesis is “that Galatians is Paul’s first sustained attempt to deal with the issue of covenantal nomism.”[ref]Jouette M. Bassler, David M. Hay, E. Elizabeth Johnson, Pauline Theology (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002), 125.[/ref]
This phrase characterizes the Jewish relationship between God and Israel and its idea is consistently within the corpus of Jewish literature. The law was an integral part of the Covenant “both to show Israel how to live within that covenant…and to make it possible for them to do so (the system of atonement). Thus, in the phrase ‘covenantal nomism,’ the former word emphasizes God’s prevenient grace, the latter can and should not be confused with legalism or with any idea of ‘earning’ salvation.”[ref]Bassler, and others, 126.[/ref]
Dunn suggests that during the Maccabean period, the retention of national identity and the obligations of covenantal nomism “focused on those features of national and religious life which marked out the distinctives of the Jewish people—circumcision and food laws.”[ref]Ibid. 126[/ref] For him as for Wright (see above), “the verb ‘to judaize’ is coined to indicate those Gentiles who choose to live their lives in accord with the ancestral customs and practices distinctive of the Jewish nation.”[ref]Ibid., 126-127.[/ref] During the Maccabean period, “circumcision and food laws, together with other specific commandments like Sabbath and festivals, remained the clearest identity and boundary markers of Judaism as a whole,….”[ref]Ibid., 127.[/ref]What Dunn calls “the social function of the law” is that covenantal nomism was bound up with national and ethnic identity so that the law became a way of understanding the distinctiveness of the Jews as God’s people and their differences from others, namely Gentiles, who were not God’s people.[ref]Ibid., 127-128.[/ref]
Dunn admits that the second controversial item in his theology is that “the phrase ‘works of the law’ was a way of describing the same covenantal-nomistic mindset, that is, ‘works of the law’ refers to the praxis which the law of the covenant laid upon the covenant member.”[ref]Ibid., 128.[/ref] For him, the boundary markers (circumcision, food laws, and festivals) marked the Jews as a nationalistic entity and were markers that kept the Gentiles and Jewish Christians from being one new creation.
Thielman argues against Sanders because Sanders thinks the fundamental difference between (unconverted) Jew and Christian in Paul is Christology. On matters such as sin and grace and forgiveness, Paul is really arguing “from solution to plight”: that is, Paul knows the solution, namely Jesus, and then argues back to plight. Thielman argues that when Paul in Galatians and Romans professedly sets out the plight (i.e., sin, or rebellion against God and his law) and then turns to the solution, he is not resorting to a pedagogical device, but is borrowing from a standard pattern in both the Old Testament and in the Judaism of his day.[ref]Frank Thielman, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (New York, NY: E. J. Brill, 1989). See also: D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1992), 299-300.[/ref]
Thielman is viewed as a “Lutheran Responder,”[ref]Westerholm, Perspectives, 21f-218.[/ref] but he is not seen as representing a return to the Protestant portrayals of Judaism from the pre-Sanders era. Thielman sees the Reformers and their disciples as wrong in not trying to make an attempt to understand Judaism on its own terms and that Paul did not see Judaism as a legalistic religion nor did he attribute to Judaism a doctrine of salvation by works[ref]Thielman, Paul & the Law, 27, 188, 239.[/ref].
Thielman’s view of the Pauline argument includes eschatological hope in which the vicious cycle of sin would be broken and the people of God would be transformed to do his will from their hearts.[ref]Thielman, Plight to Solution, 36.[/ref] He suggests that Paul appropriated a “plight to solution” pattern that was already established in the Second Temple Judaism period and that membership in the people of God, as it is defined by the Mosaic Covenant, is membership in a people with a plight. Thielman’s argument in From Plight to Solution is that the common Jewish expectation was that the restored people of God would be enabled by God’s Spirit to carry out the Law of Moses.
In the final section of his book Paul and the Law, Thielman deals with the question: Does the Law Contradict the Gospel? in which he writes about the parallels in the pattern of Judaism in the Mosaic Law and the patterns of Christianity in Paul’s letters. Within that framework, his answer is that the Law does not contradict the Gospel.[ref]Thielman, Paul & the Law, 240-241.[/ref] Next, he asks the question: Why, then, the Gospel? For him, the Gospel is needed because most of the Jews of Paul’s time believed that they lived under the “curses” of the Covenant in this “present evil age.” In spite of sacrifices to bring atonement to those “in the Covenant,” there was a longing of many Jews in Paul’s time that looked forward to the intervention of God on their behalf to recreate hearts and restore their nation. For Thielman, this eschatological redemption was Paul’s focus and the Mosaic Law had been absorbed by the gospel by the transforming influence of the Holy Spirit.[ref]Ibid., 242-243.[/ref] Thielman offers a proposal that “Paul, along with many Jews of his time, adopted the understanding of the relationship between grace and obedience”[ref]Ibid., 245.[/ref] The basic difference for him between Paul and Judaism was their position within salvation history. The Old Testament and Judaism carried hope of the restoration of the Covenant in the establishment of a New Covenant while Paul proclaimed that it had been fulfilled.[ref]Ibid., 245[/ref] Thielman assesses his response to Dunn and the “new perspective” as: “Dunn’s proposal cannot be correct and…Luther, in spite of his unreliable view of Judaism, is a master when it comes to reading Paul.”[ref]Ibid., 43.[/ref]
Westerholm stands on the Lutheran side of the equation. His argument is that “in Paul’s letters the term law refers most frequently to the Mosaic legislation given to Israel at Mount Sinai so that Israel could ‘do’ or ‘keep’ the law. The phrase works of the law is most naturally understood as ‘the doing of the law’; not as Israel’s misuse of the law to limit the people of God to their own national boundaries.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]
What Does This Mean Today?
If it is true that the hermeneutical error of Luther’s charge that Judaism and Roman Catholicism meritorious works are the same is correct, and I think that the evidence suggests that it is, then the church has labored under a false impression of legalism for almost four centuries. In classes that I have taught over the years, most, if not all of the members of the class, had only been exposed to the legalism concept, which was captured by the phrase “under the law.” However, what if the “new perspective on Paul” as heralded by Dunn, Wright, and others is correct, and at this moment in my theological journey I think they are on to something and am leaning in their direction, then boundary markers as a social enclosure to prohibit different races from setting at table with each other can probably be found in many churches of many stripes, Lutheran or otherwise. Ways that have been constructed to keep people from becoming the people of God have cropped up alongside “works to do” to become the people of God. The church needs to become open versus closed and the “new perspective on Paul,” which holds out inclusivism over exclusivism could be a blessing to the church.
Community Discussion Questions
➡ |CDQ Info|
- So, does your church read Paul as a Lutheran?
- What kind of church fellowship do you attend: inclusive or exclusive?