RPM, Volume 17, Number 16, April 12 to April 18, 2015

Evaluating the New Perspective on Paul

Article Eight
(Question One)

By Cornelis P. Venema

Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.

It is appropriate that we begin our evaluation of the new perspective by raising several questions regarding its historical reassessment of Second Temple Judaism. All of the primary writers who advocate a new approach to our understanding of the apostle Paul's gospel, do so from the conviction that E. P. Sanders' study of Judaism requires a "revolution" in Pauline studies. N. T. Wright well expresses this consensus, when he asserts that E. P. Sanders "dominates the landscape [of Pauline studies], and, until a major refutation of his central thesis is produced, honesty compels one to do business with him. I do not myself believe such a refutation can or will be offered; serious modifications are required, but I regard the basic point as established." 1 Since the work of Sanders plays such a fundamental role in the development of the new perspective, a critical evaluation of this perspective may not bypass Sanders' claims regarding the nature of Judaism at the time of the writing of the New Testament.

According to Sanders' historical reassessment of Judaism, the older view, which treated Paul's understanding of the gospel as a response to legalism, was based in large measure upon a fundamental misreading of Judaism. The Reformation wrongly assumed that Paul formulated his gospel in opposition to a legalistic distortion that was characteristic of Judaism. However, Sanders argues that the literature of Second Temple Judaism pervasively witnesses not to a religion of legalistic works-righteousness but to a view of the law undergirded by God's covenant grace. Rather than exhibiting a pattern of religion marked by human initiative and finding favor with God on the basis of works of obedience to the law, this literature reveals a view in which God's gracious election precedes any required response on the part of his people. Second Temple Judaism was not a form of "Pelagianism" that regarded the covenant relationship as a kind of moralistic human achievement. Whatever obligations of obedience to the law were required of the covenant people, they were required as a response to the initiatives of God's grace. For this reason, Sanders describes the pattern of religion that was pervasive to Second Temple Judaism as "covenantal nomism." 2 Covenantal nomism understands that we "get in" the covenant relationship by grace, and we "stay in" or "maintain" the covenant relationship by works.

Rather than attempt any kind of major refutation of Sanders' assessment of Second Temple Judaism, I would like to raise in this and a subsequent article four key questions regarding Sanders' work. In so doing, we will be in a better position to see whether Sanders' arguments have the kind of significance that many of the new perspective authors claim. After this preliminary evaluation of Sanders treatment of Second Temple Judaism, we will be in a position to take up more directly the claims of the new perspective regarding Paul's understanding of the gospel.

First Question: How strong is the case for "covenantal nomism"?

No one who takes the trouble to read carefully Sanders' studies on the subject of Second Temple Judaism will doubt that he has canvassed a wide diversity of sources. In his Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), Sanders painstakingly sorts through the available literary evidence for an understanding of Judaism in the period between 200 BC and 200 AD. Though Sanders' work has been reviewed in a great number of articles and monographs, it remains in a class by itself as the most significant comprehensive evaluation of the pattern of religious thought in the Judaism that was present during the New Testament era. The only study that is comparable in its reach and length is a recent volume of essays on Second - Temple Judaism edited by D. A. Carson, Justification and Variegated Nomism.3 Though the various contributors to this study raise a number of important questions regarding Sanders' findings, the assumption throughout is that Sanders work has become the benchmark for our approach to Judaism in relation to the teaching of the apostle Paul. At the least, this volume illustrates that all future roads to Second Temple Judaism will have to go through Sanders.

More important than the extensiveness of Sanders' studies of Second Temple Judaism, however, is the strength of his case. Though there are a number of cautions regarding Sanders' work that need to be issued, there can be little doubt that the case he makes for Judaism's teaching of "covenantal nomism" is strong. In the literature of Second Temple Judaism, there is little evidence of a pattern of religion that views God's covenant with his people, Israel, as based upon something other than God's gracious initiative. God's election of Israel as his people is the commonly attested view of how one "gets in" the covenant community. Though there is an equally strong emphasis upon the need for obedience to the requirements of the law to "maintain" the covenant relationship, it is also generally acknowledged that God has provided a means of atonement for sin or transgression when this obedience falls short. Thus, the covenant people of God are not obliged to merit or obtain favor with God by their obedience. Not only is the covenant relationship founded upon God's gracious initiative ("getting in"), but it is also sustained ("staying in") by God's merciful acceptance of people whose obedience falls short of perfection. Despite the differences between various segments of Judaism, the basic structure of what Sanders calls "covenantal nomism" seems quite pervasive: the covenant relationship is established and administered by God's gracious and merciful initiative, while it is maintained by obedience to the law as an expression of resolve on the part of the covenant people.

Though Sanders' case for the pervasive presence of "covenantal nomism" in the literature of Second Temple Judaism is quite strong, this does not mean that it is without significant weaknesses. Some of these are due to problems of method or the failure to consider adequately some key sources. The most significant weakness, however, has to do with the nature of what Sanders calls "covenantal nomism." Before elaborating further on this issue, I will simply mention a few "flies in the ointment" so far as Sanders' study of Judaism is concerned.

1. A significant shortcoming of Sanders' work is that he focuses primarily upon what he calls the "pattern of religion" in Second Temple Judaism. For Sanders, a pattern of religion is exhibited primarily in terms of the way a person "gets in" the religious community and then "stays in." Covenantal nomism is, accordingly, Sanders' term for a pattern of religion within Judaism that regards "getting in" as a the consequence of God's gracious initiative and "staying in" as a consequence of the person's resolute commitment to God and obedience to his law. Though this approach serves usefully as a way of bringing some order into an immensely complex subject, namely the religious views and practices of Second Temple Judaism, it is rather reductionistic. As Sanders admits, his idea of a "pattern of religion" is not so much interested in the religious themes and teachings of the various strands of Judaism as it is in the way it exhibits a certain pattern of understanding how one becomes and remains a member of the religious community. What he terms "covenantal nomism" becomes, therefore, a very general viewpoint that is able to accommodate quite a variety of ideas and practices. To the extent that it accommodates such a diversity of viewpoint, it becomes a rather flexible and imprecise pattern. Most importantly, as we shall see, the broad range of positions that are compatible with covenantal nomism includes some that are more "legalistic" than others.4

2. In his development of the idea of a pattern of religion in Judaism, Sanders gives little attention to the way Second Temple Judaism views the future (eschatological) vindication of the covenant community. By downplaying the future aspect of God's dealings with the covenant community, Sanders is able to emphasize the divine initiative in graciously electing the covenant community. However, if the final vindication of those who belong to the community is given greater emphasis, the covenant member's works of obedience to the law can be understood in a way that overshadows the grace that initiates the covenant. We will have occasion to return to this issue in the following section. But this neglect of the role obedience to the law plays in the future justification/vindication of God's people represents an imbalance in the way Sanders describes the pattern of religion in Judaism. 5

3. Despite the extraordinary reach of Sanders' scholarship, the findings of a number of contributors to Justification and Variegated Nomism suggest that some of the significant literature of Second Temple Judaism does not fit Sanders idea of covenantal nomism. 6 In some of this literature, little emphasis is placed upon God's gracious initiative of election. 7 Sometimes the primary emphasis falls upon the future vindication of those who distinguish themselves by their obedience to the law. In other instances, the primary emphasis falls upon the covenant members' obedience as that which "merits" God's continued favor and final acceptance. 8

4. Though it hardly seems fair to fault Sanders for failing to consider all the sources in his remarkably extensive study of Second Temple Judaism, there are some noteworthy omissions in his work. One of the occasions for the publication of the work edited by Carson, Justification and Variegated Nomism, was the need to give attention to these sources. Among the more important omissions from Sanders' original study are the works of Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, and an apocalyptic (prophetic revelation) source of the third century BC, 2 Enoch.9

Second Question: Does "covenantal nomism" beg the question?

Even though Sanders has mustered a considerable body of evidence to establish that the pattern of religion in Second Temple Judaism was "covenantal nomism," there is an intriguing "begging of the question" that characterizes his claims and those of many advocates of the new perspective. The "begging of the question" that I have in mind can be put in the form of the question: could what Sanders calls "covenantal nomism" take a form that corresponds to what historians of Christian doctrine call "semi-Pelagianism?"

Sanders and other new perspective authors are fond of arguing that Second Temple Judaism exhibits no substantial traces of Pelagianism, the idea that God's people find favor with him on the basis of their own moral efforts. In this respect, as we have acknowledged, Sanders has made a compelling case. Whatever the diversity of teaching and practice within the various branches and sects of Second Temple Judaism, few if any practiced a religion that was the equivalent of a kind of "pulling oneself up to God by one's moral bootstraps." 10

The glaring weakness of Sanders' case, however, is that he (and other new perspective writers) does not seriously consider whether what he terms "covenantal nomism" could accommodate a form of religious teaching that regards salvation and acceptance with God to be based upon grace plus good works. "Covenantal nomism" is a sufficiently elastic pattern for the religion of Second Temple Judaism that it could express a kind of a semi-Pelagian view of the relation between God and his people. That Second Temple Judaism was not full-blown Pelagianism is not surprising. 11 In the course of history, Pelagianism is a "rare bird" in the aviary of Jewish and Christian theology. Few have argued that salvation does not require the initiative and working of God's grace, but is simply based upon human moral achievement. Where Pelagianism has appeared, therefore, it has commonly been condemned by the major branches of the Christian church. Semi-Pelagian views, however, are quite often found in the history of Christian theology. Though these views may speak of God's gracious initiative in salvation, they also insist that human salvation does not end with this good beginning. According to semi-Pelagianism, those who find favor and acceptance with God are those who freely cooperate with his grace and complement it by a life of good works that merit further grace and final salvation.

Accordingly, when the Reformers of the sixteenth century opposed the doctrine of justification in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, they did not oppose (let alone claim to oppose) it because it was Pelagian, as writers of the new perspective suggest. The Reformers, including Luther and Calvin, objected to the teaching that sinners are justified by God partly on the basis of his grace in Christ and partly on the basis of their willing cooperation with this grace, which includes good works that increase the believer's justification and merit further grace. The Roman Catholic Church, whose teaching was criticized as a re-statement of the kind of works-righteousness that the early church, including Paul, opposed, was not opposed for its Pelagianism. What prompted the Reformation was the conviction that the Roman Catholic church taught that God's grace in Christ was not a sufficient basis for the believer's acceptance into favor with God. The parallel, therefore, that the Reformers drew between the teachings of the Catholic church and the Judaizing heresy that the apostle Paul opposed, was not that they were unalloyed Pelagianism. The parallel, to put the matter precisely and accurately, was that they both wanted to make human works subsequent to the initiative of God's grace a partial basis for justification in the present and the future.12


So far as Sanders' and the new perspectives' assessment of Second Temple Judaism goes, then, it is not enough to demonstrate the absence of a Pelagian view of salvation by works. What is required is the further argument that Second Temple Judaism was not marked by a form of semi-Pelagianism. The Reformation understanding of Paul's opposition to the Judaizers does not stand or fall with the claim that Second Temple Judaism was rife with Pelagianism. Paul's polemics against those who emphasized the need for "works of the law" in justification need only have been addressed to a kind of Christian heresy that was the product of a particular strand of teaching within Second Temple Judaism: The Reformation's understanding of Paul's teaching only requires the presence of a semi-Pelagian emphasis within some branches of Judaism that was present among the apostle's opponents.

The irony here is that Sanders' description of "covenantal nomism" closely resembles a kind of textbook description of semi-Pelagian teaching and therefore lends unwitting support to the Reformation argument. To put the matter in the traditional language of the doctrine of justification, covenantal nomism fits rather comfortably with the idea that the justification and acceptance of the righteous, now and in the future, depends upon works of obedience to the law that follow and are added to God's gracious initiative. 13 If that is the case, then what Sanders calls "covenantal nomism" bears remarkable formal similarities to the kind of semi-Pelagianism that marked the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. 14 The Reformation claim that Paul was opposing a doctrine of justification by (grace plus) works may, accordingly, be more on target than the new perspective authors are willing to acknowledge. At the very least, Sanders' understanding of Second Temple Judaism does not require a new understanding of the teaching of the apostle Paul as authors of the new perspective argue.

(Very slightly edited)


  1. What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 20.
  2. Sanders, as we have noted previously, uses this terminology to emphasize that we become members of the covenant by grace, but maintain our membership by obedience to the law. His term "nomism" (from the word, "nomos," meaning law) means to emphasize the role of works of obedience to the law in maintaining the covenant relationship.
  3. Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).
  4. Cf. Peter Enns, "Expansions of Scrip- ture," in Justification and Variegated Nomism, pp. 73-98. Enns makes a similar point at the conclusion of his study. He notes that Sanders tends to identify salvation with Israel's election, and then downplays the role of works in obtaining salvation for those who belong to the covenant community. According to Enns (p. 98), "[i]t might be less confusing [than Sanders' categories of "getting in" and "staying in"] to say that election is by grace but salvation is by obedience."
  5. Cf. Simon J. Gathercole, Where is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 1- 34. Gathercole, who critically evaluates the claims of the new perspective in terms of Paul's opposition to Jewish "boasting" in Romans 1-5, rightly notes that Sanders fails to deal with the eschatological dimension of Judaism. When God's final verdict regarding his people is made to rest upon their obedience to the law,. a kind of "legalism" is affirmed. Though it may not be the "legalism" that says we "get in" the covenant by works, it is nonetheless one that says we are "finally vindicated" by our obedience to the law. As we shall argue in what follows, one of the principal problems with Sanders' argument is that he works with a simplistic view of "legalism," namely, the Pelagian idea of salvation by moral achievement apart from the initiatives of God's grace.
  6. Cf. Daniel Falk, "Psalms and Prayers," in Justification and Variegated Nomism, pp. 7-56.
  7. Cf. Philip R. Davies, "Didactic Stories," in Justification and Variegated Nomism, pp. 99-134; Richard Bauckham, "Apocalypses," in Justification and Variegated Nomism, pp. 135-88.
  8. Cf. Markus Bockmuehl, "lQS and Salvation at Qumram," in Justification and Variegated Nomism, pp. 381-441.
  9. Cf. Paul Spilsbury, "Josephus," in Justification and Variegated Nomism, pp. 241-60. The omission of Josephus from Sanders' 1977 study is particularly striking, since Josephus, who writes as a member of a party of the Pharisees, is perhaps the single most comprehensive literary source for an understanding of Pharisaism in the first century of the Christian era. In Josephus' account of the relation of the religious community to God, little emphasis is placed upon God's gracious initiative. According to Josephus, the Jews were at a distinct advantage among the nations because God had given them the law of Moses and through obedience to the law they were able to live in the hope of the resurrection. 2 Enoch, a work that Sanders does not consider, presents an even more unqualified form of legalism: those who keep the law merit their eternal reward and favor with God.
  10. Cf. N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 119.
  11. I am aware that I am using these terms, "Pelagianism" and "semi-Pelagianism," in an anachronistic and somewhat inexact fashion. For my purposes, however, it is enough to recognize that there is a considerable difference between a view that ascribes human salvation to moral achievement (Pelagianism) and a view that ascribes human salvation to God's grace plus good works that complete or complement the working of God's grace (semi-Pelagianism).
  12. Cf. Moises Silva, "The Law and Christianity: Dunn's New Synthesis," Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991), p. 348: "Sanders (along with biblical scholars more generally) has an inadequate understanding of historical Christian theology, and his view of the Reformational concern with legalism does not get to the heart of the question." I fully concur with Silva's observation and am happy to note that he speaks as a biblical and not systematic theologian.
  13. Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul's Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 65
  14. Cf. D. A. Carson, Justification and Varigated Nomism, p. 544: "Nevertheless, covenantal nomism as a category is not really an alternative to merit theology, and therefore is no response to it. … By putting over against merit theology no grace but covenant theology, Sanders has managed to have a structure that preserves grace in the 'getting in' while preserving works (and frequently some for or other of merit theology) in the 'staying in.'"
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