Doctrine of Salvation (Part 15): New Perspective on Paul Continued

November 11, 2020

New Perspective on Paul Continued

Welcome to Defenders. I’m glad that you could join us for this important lesson on the doctrine of salvation and in particular the doctrine of justification which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith.

Today we want to continue our discussion of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” The New Perspective offers a view of justification which is radically different than traditional Catholic and Protestant perspectives. This time the dispute concerns the meaning of Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of God” (dikaiōsynē theou). Some proponents of the New Perspective construe God’s righteousness to be his faithfulness to the covenant. Proponents of the New Perspective think of God’s righteousness as a relational, not a normative, concept and identify it with God’s being faithful to his covenant people.

This claim seems to be implausible on the face of it, for it amounts to nothing less than the claim that English translators, not to mention non-English translators, have for generations actually mistranslated the expression dikaiōsynē theou, since the English word “righteousness” just does not mean faithfulness. The Hebrew word sedek (also, in effect, mistranslated by “righteousness”) is also said not to express a normative concept like goodness but rather a relational concept like faithful to.

If one reduces God’s righteousness to his covenant faithfulness, this will radically impact one’s understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification. For then justification is not about God’s reckoning us to be guiltless by the standard of divine justice but rather reckoning to us covenant faithfulness. The problem with this is that faithfulness to the covenant would not suffice for salvation. When Paul declares in Philippians 3:6-9 his desire for a righteousness “that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith,” he is not longing for faithfulness to the covenant, for he says that he was already “blameless” in that respect and it availed him nothing.

The implausibility of the New Perspective’s reductionism with respect to righteousness is perhaps best seen by asking what the opposite of righteousness, that is, unrighteousness, is said by Paul to be. It is not unfaithfulness, but rather wickedness and ungodliness (Romans 1:18) or lawlessness (2 Corinthians 6:14). Faithlessness is but one of the many sins listed by Paul in Romans 1:29-31 which result in God’s just condemnation.

Righteousness is a broad moral property which entails faithfulness, since to break one’s word is wrong, but is not reducible to faithfulness. As Mark Seifrid puts it, “All ‘covenant-keeping’ is righteous behavior, but not all righteous behavior is ‘covenant-keeping.’ It is misleading, therefore, to speak of ‘God’s righteousness’ as his ‘covenant-faithfulness.’”[1] Seifrid points out that righteousness language in the Old Testament has primarily to do with God’s role as Judge and Ruler of creation. As such it is a normative concept, having to do with God’s establishing right moral order in the world. It takes on a positive or salvific sense because the biblical writers expect God to intervene to reinstate right order when it is usurped by evil in the world. It takes on a negative or punitive sense because the biblical writers expect a reinstatement of right order by God to involve the punishment of the wicked. As Seifrid so aptly puts it, “Retribution remains on the ‘backside’ of divine acts of righteousness.”[2] So while there are 64 instances of God’s saving righteousness in the Old Testament, Seifrid counts as well 15 cases in which God’s righteousness is conceived in retributive or punitive terms. God’s righteousness comprises both aspects.

Moreover, although the intention of proponents of the New Perspective is to explain God’s “justification” of the Gentiles as his declaring them to be “righteous” (that is, faithful to the covenant), in fact the New Perspective, by reducing God’s righteousness to his covenant faithfulness, does not make sense of God’s relation to Gentiles, since they stand outside the covenant made with Israel. If unrighteousness is unfaithfulness to the covenant, then Gentiles cannot be said to be unrighteous, which is expressly said by Paul in Romans 1:18. Nor could a Gentile like Job be said to be righteous, as the Lord himself affirms, since he was not faithful to the covenant.

In point of fact, no connection between justification and covenant faithfulness seems to exist. Seifrid observes that of the 283 occurrences of the word “covenant” and the over 500 occurrences of the word “righteousness” in the Old Testament in only seven instances are the two words used together.[3] In general, one does not act righteously or unrighteously with respect to a covenant. Rather one “keeps,” “remembers,” or “establishes” a covenant, or, conversely, one “breaks,” “transgresses,” or “despises” a covenant. In speaking of righteousness as covenant faithfulness, proponents of the New Perspective seem to be guilty of a category mistake – mixing apples and oranges as it were.

In any case, the reductionistic interpretation of dikaiōsynē theou as covenant faithfulness has now been shown to be linguistically untenable. Charles Irons’ The Righteousness of God (published in 2015) is the definitive work on this expression and a convincing refutation of the reductionistic interpretation of the New Perspective.[4] Irons conducts a thorough investigation of righteousness language in the Hebrew Old Testament, in the Greek Septuagint, and in extra-biblical Jewish writings.

With respect to the use of sedek in the Old Testament, Irons finds that the word does not have a relational meaning like faithfulness. He says, in the Old Testament “Righteousness is a [normative concept], and the norm is God’s own moral law, which is grounded in his unchanging nature as a God of perfect holiness, justice, and truth.”[5] With respect to the Septuagint and extra-biblical Greek no essential differences emerge from Old Testament usage.

In the New Testament Irons finds that the verb “justify” (dikaioō) means either “(1) to vindicate someone, or (2) to declare someone to be righteous and to treat them [sic] as righteous. . . . For Paul it is a soteriological term that denotes God’s act of forgiving sins and accounting sinners as righteous in his sight.”[6] Thus, the translation of the phrase dikaiōsynē theou as “the faithfulness of God” is simply incorrect.

Fortunately, proponents of the New Perspective have backed away from the simplistic reductionistic conception of God’s righteousness. For example, the late James D. G. Dunn, in response to his critics, acknowledges that the Hebrew concept of righteousness cannot be reduced to covenant faithfulness or salvation. Righteousness language in the Hebrew Scriptures, he recognizes, also involves punitive divine justice, according to which righteousness is “understood as measured by a norm, right order, or that which is morally right,” with the qualification that “the norm is not seen as some abstract ideal. . . , but rather as a norm concretised in relation” between God and creatures.[7]

So when we come to Romans, Dunn, says, “That God’s righteousness towards the peoples he has created includes wrath and judgment as well as faithfulness and salvation is clearly implicit in the sequences Romans 1:16-18 and 3:3-6.”[8] Those who deny that dikaiōsynē is a forensic term, Dunn says, pay insufficient attention to Romans 4:4-5, “where the forensic background is clear in the allusion to the legal impropriety of a judge ‘justifying the ungodly’. . . , and where again the thought is entirely of attributing a righteous status to one who is unrighteous.”[9] Dunn’s point is that Paul’s referring to God as “him who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5) recalls the Old Testament description of the unjust judge who justifies the wicked (Proverbs 17:15), which is an abomination in the Lord’s sight. French theologian Henri Blocher remarks on “the staggering audacity of Paul’s combination of words: God who justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5)! Have new perspective (and other scholars) measured the shocking magnitude of this paradox?”[10] Evidently not.

Therefore, the “New Perspective on Paul” has run its useful course and should now be abandoned. The evidence shows clearly that the Protestant Reformers were on target in their doctrine of justification as God’s declaration of a new legal status for believers involving a normative right standing before the holy God.

Next time we’ll look at what Paul means when he says that believers in Christ are “justified by faith.” Until then, may God go with you.[11]


[1]           Mark A. Seifrid, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: A Fresh Appraisal of Paul and Second Temple Judaism, 2 vols., ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, WUNT II/140 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), p. 424.

[2]           [2]Mark A. Seifrid, “Paul’s Use of Righteousness Language against Its Hellenistic Background,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2: The Paradoxes of Paul, WUNT (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), p. 44. Or, more accurately, of God’s saving acts of righteousness.

[3]           [3]Seifrid, “Righteousness Language,” p. 423.

[4]           [4]Charles Lee Irons, The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation, WUNT II/386 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015.

[5]           [5]Ibid., p. 340.

[6]           [6]Ibid., p. 76.

[7]           [7]James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective: whence, what and whither?” in The New Perspective on Paul, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 63-64.

[8]           [8]Ibid., pp. 64-65.

[9]           [9]Ibid., p. 64.

[10]         [10]Henri Blocher, “Justification of the Ungodly (Sola Fide): Theological Reflections,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2: The Paradoxes of Paul, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), p. 490.

[11]         [11]Total Running Time: 14:33 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)