alien righteousness

From Horton’s chapter Paul’s Polemic against “Works of the Law” in his book titled Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ

Siblings holding hands

Nick commented on a post here at Iustitia Aliena and observes, “You asked if I was Catholic or FV; I am Catholic, but the FV is basically Protestants discovering Catholicism without realizing it.”

The Federal Vision (FV) being the younger brother of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP).

Taken directly from Michael Horton’s work titled, Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ in his chapter “Paul’s Polemic against “Works of the Law” that run from pages 53-79.  This excerpt from the book  is from pages 64-70.

“To my brother Larry, who introduced me to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and my partners at the White Horse Inn, who continually remind me how urgently we need to read it again.” (Before the Table of Contents)


In the Reformed version of covenant theology, the issue of boundary markers (ecclesiology) is clearly addressed and included in the sweep of Paul’s concern about the question of justification (soteriology).  For the NPP [New Perspective on Paul], however, the later is lost in the former.

Building on the ground-breaking work of Wrede and Stendahl, the NPP argues that the main question addressed in Paul’s theology in general and his doctrine of justification in particular in the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan (Horton Gives a Footnote [HGF]).  Often at this point we meet objections to “abstract” doctrines of justification, as if Protestant exegesis had missed the larger redemptive-historical context of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.  A further challenge to the Reformation interpretation of justification is the contrast often drawn by the NPP between Hebrew and Hellenistic approaches to “righteousness.”

“Righteousness” in the Hebrew Scriptures and Paul

As Sanders pointed out, part of the problem begins with the fact that “justify” and “righteousness” –different words in English–are used to translate what are in fact cognate terms in Greek (dikaioo and dikaiosyne). (HGF).  However, in light of the new-eschatological reality that the new covenant has inaugurated, Sanders is correct to recognize in Paul a difference (I would say more fully realized) eschatological perspective of righteousness.  In fact, I would urge that to whatever extent Paul must certainly have been out of step with Second Temple Judaism (inasmuch) as it conflated the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants), his scheme is consistent with the new covenant and its laws–the whole law, not only the boundary markers–define the community of the just and therefore exclude the unrighteous.  Paul announces as a present reality that could only be anticipated by the prophets: namely, that God has at last justified the ungodly.

On the other hand, James D.G. Dunn tried to reconcile Paul with Second Temple Judaism by setting both against an ostensibly Hellenistic concept of jurisprudence–a trail that was blazed by Albrecht Ritschl. (HGF) Dun explains:

For in the typical Greek worldview, “righteousness” is an idea or ideal against which the individual and individual action can be measured.  Our contemporary English usage reflects this ancient mind-set when it continues to use such expression as “Justice must be satisfied.”  In contrast, however, “righteousness” in Hebrew thought is actually a more relational concept–that is, “righteousness” in Hebrew thinking has to do with the meeting of obligation that are laid on an individual by the relationship of which he or she is part. (HGF).  [End quote]

Yet does this contrast between Hebrew and Hellenistic concepts of just square with Sanders’s own analysis of the rabbinic emphasis on the weighing of merits? His entire discussion of the speculations concerning how one can atone for specific sins and how much obedience is required is as rigorously juridical as anything that we find in the medieval system, much less in Protestant theology.

Modern dogmatics and biblical theology have tended to contrast law and love, the legal and the relational, at least since Ritschl.  However ironic it may seem, this is an intrusion of modern Protestant ethics on the Hebrew Scriptures and Judaism.  Paul knows nothing of this contrast before or after his conversion.  Love, in fact, is the fulfillment of the law–and in this he was not only following the teaching of Jesus but also of the Old Testament.  For him the real antithesis that he recognized after the Damascus road encounter was not between law and love but between law and gospel, the principle of works and the principle of grace alone with respect to justification and the inheritance of all of the benefits promised to Abraham and his heirs.  As we have seen, Dunn simply see “legal” in antithesis to “covenant.”  Part of the problem is that “covenant” is always a code word for covenantal nomism and, more specifically ethnic distinctiveness.  Therefore, any theological distinctiveness of specific covenants is lost.

Dunn recognizes the challenge that the NPP faces on this point:

[Quoting Dunn] The more we stress the continuity between Paul’s teaching formulated in such a polemical manner, as in Gal 2:16 and Rom 3:20?… In a word, the primary answer seems to be that Paul was reacting not so much against Jewish legalism as against Jewish restrictions. (HGF) [End quote].

To make this case, Dunn emphasizes that the content for his sharp contrasts between works and faith in his announcement that the gospel has come to all and for all.  Gentiles as well as Jews.  For example, he cites Romans 10:4: “Christ is the end of the law as means to righteousness for all who believe.”  Thus, the “for all who believe” is meant to qualify Paul’s reference to “the law as a means to righteousness.” (HGF).

But does this to reductionism? Isn’t Paul’s argument reversed here? It seems that Paul is saying that by denying that the law is a means for righteousness, he is not only opening the door to Gentiles, but also to Jews have in fact barred themselves from a right relationship with God, despite–or rather precisely becaue of, their tenacious grasp of Torah-righteousness.  After all, in the first three chapters of Romans, Paul’s charage is not simply that the Jews are being exclusivistic in their concern for legal purity, but that they have not obeyed the law–despite the fact that they do keep the ceremonial and dietary laws.  Paul faults them not for failing to include Gentiles, but for failing to keep the law to which their circumcision holds them accountable.  In my view, Dunn is not wrong in what he includes here but in what he excludes when he writes, “For in [Rom.] 2:27-30, the polemical antithesis between ‘law of works’ and the ‘law of faith’ (3:27) is elaborated by the antithesis between ‘God of the Jews only’ and God also of the Gentiles’ (3:29).” (HGF).  However, both in Romans 3 and chapter 10, the reverse appears to be the case: the Jew-Gentile antithesis is resolved by the gospel of free justification.

In his programmatic monograph, Wright carefully emphasized that Paul is arguing for “justification by belief,i.e., covenant membership demarcated by that which is believed.”  He recognizes that this amounts to “my redefinition if what ‘justification’ thus actually means.” (HGF). He adds, “It is perhaps important to say that, while I disagree with Dunn’s exegesis of this particular passage, I am in substantial agreement with his general thesis about ‘works of the law’in Paul.” (HGF).  He correctly sees that Galatians 3 “should be seen as an extended discussion of Genesis 15.” (HGF).  However, the “two covenants” distinguished in Galatians 4 are reduced to a single covenant– “the renewed covenant” at Sinai.  As a consequence, the principial use of nomos (law as the covenantal basis) is folded into the narrative of redemptive-historical use.

A further problem especially in Dunn and Wright’s exegesis is the fact that Paul had never imposed the distinctive laws on the Gentiles.  Seifrid queries, “When they had not had the ‘works of the law’ [as defined by Dunn] imposed on them in the first place, how could their justification be a liberation from them or from the laws?” Rather, the Galatian Christians, according to Paul’s gospel, are liberated “from” the elemntal forces of the world’ (Gal 4:3, 9) to which their own religious law that was functionally analogous to the Jewish law belonged.” (HGF).

[Horton Quoting Dunn]

Further, the cry of relief in Rom. 8:2 (cf. Gal 5:1, 13) is not evoked by liberation from Israel’s covenant distinctives but from the desperate situation into which the law forces human being: faced with the Sollen of the law (“Thou shalt not covet”), fleshly human being inevitably fall into the dilemma of being willing but unable to keep the law or to do good consequently into sin and death (Rom 7:7-25).  The liberation is from condemnation for not having kept the law (8:1). (HGF). [End quote].

How could Paul talk about fear and slavery in Romans 8:15 if the law itself had in fact provided for sufficient atonement? (HGF).

Dunn explicitly writes that the curse Paul has in mind here is “the curse of a wrong understanding of the law,” not of the law itself (emphasis added). (HGF).  But this not only fails to do justice to the Pauline gloss on Deuteronomy: “Cursed is the one who does not do everything contained in it” (Galatians 3:10, au. trans.; cf. Deut. 27:26).  Weakening the severity of the law’s stipulations and sanctions, this view tends toward a corollary weakening of Christ’s accomplishment.  Could Christ’s having having “redeemed us from the curse of the law” amounted to nothing more than a new understanding of the law’s curse, but the curse itself.  Nor could this curse have been a sanction for violating for the ethnic distinctives, since Paul’s nomistic opponents not only kept but also insisted vehemently on the Gentile believers’ keeping them.

The contrast fall unmistakably on promises versus commands, not on some commands versus others.

For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.”  But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for the “the just shall live by faith.”  Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.”  Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having becoming a curse for us. (Gal. 3:10-12 NKJV, emphasis added; cf. 3:2-3).

In fact, after elaborating these sharp antithesis in Galatians 2:1 through 5:12, the apostle turns to the ethical implications of life in the Spirit, interpreting “the works of the Spirit” not only in relation to certain boundary-marking laws but also in terms of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, genetleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).

As Jesus summarized the whole law in terms of loving God and neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40), Paul thought of the law as a whole system revealing God’s moral will and repeated Jesus’ statement: “For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). Although the Sinai treaty included the moral law (summarized in the Decalogue), the latter transcends the former.  The ceremonial law and civil laws of the theocracy are abrogated along with the earthly kingdom that they served, but the law of love–the moral law, was founded in creation, not at Sinai.  Paul, with other New Testament writers (indeed, with Jewish interpretation concerning the Noachian laws), recognized that the moral law was eternal and unchangeable.  Originating before Sinai, in creation itself, this law of love remains an obligation of the new covenant community (Rom 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14; cf. Heb. 8:10). (HGF).  The fact that Paul speaks of the law in such broad terms cautions us against arbitrarily restricting his reference to ceremonial and dietary codes.

Not only does Paul speak of the law broadly; he also refers to works as a general principle of debt, not simply to specific works as badges of covenantal identity: “Now to the one who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt” (Rom. 4:4 NKJV alt.)  It is the principle of works-as-wages that Paul opposes to the principle of justification-as-gift.  As Seyoon Kim points out, “It is a puzzle how [James] Dunn is able to see ‘works’ in Rom 9:11b refer to the Jewish covenant distinctives when it clearly refers to ‘doing something good or bad (praxanton ti agathon he phaulon) in the foregoing clause (v. 11a), in contrast to God’s election of grace.” (HGF).

In Romans 4, it seems clear that it is not certain laws and works that Paul excludes, but works of any kind (which incur debt) in conrast to believing the gospel (v. 4). “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (v. 5 emphasis added).  Even if covenantal nomism has room for a weakened definition of grace (and law), it is only a perfecting (sanctifying grace) that believers must improve by their cooperation.  However, Paul not only says that human works are not sufficient apart from grace and the Spirit, but that they cannot even under these circumstances contribute to God’s declaration of righteousness:  “But to him who does not work but believes on the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” (vv. 5-6 NKJV).

Paul therefore does not simply say that his strict obedience to the law is insufficient apart from grace or that those who seek to define the boundary markers in terms of circumcision and dietary laws are “under a curse.”  After all, surely the Jews he had in mind were circumcised and kept dietary laws, or they would hardly have had any reason to question Paul’s laxity in admitting Gentiles.  Yet, “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all things written in the book of the law'” (Gal 3:10, emphasis added).  The last words of Stephen’s sermon make the same point: “You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it” (Acts 7:53), repeating Jesus’ indictment in John 7:19.

In Philippians, the apostle draws two columns, assets and liabilities, and places his former life as “a Pharisee of Pharisees” in the latter:

But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.  But indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord…and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith. (Phil. 3: 5-9 NKJV) (HGF).

Consequently, those who seek to be justified by law are not children of Abraham (the father of faith).  In fact, they are slaves not son, heirs of Hagar the salve rather than of  Sarah the free woman.  Or to change the metaphor he says that the Jerusalem below is in bondage, while the Jerusalem above is free.  There are two covenants, not one: a covenant of law (Sinai) and a covenant of promise (Abraham and his Seed) (Gal. 4:21-31).

All of this is consistent with the prophets, as we have already seen, especially in Jeremiah 31, where God reissues the unilateral promise that the new covenant “will not be like the covenant I made with the ancestors” at Sinai, “a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD” (v. 32 NRSV).  Paul does not invent the gospel; he is simply reminding them that the covenant of promise (Abrahamic) cannot be annulled by the later covenant at Sinai (Gal. 3: 15-18).

The fact that Saul of Tarsus was probably not terribly worried about his status before conversion yet himself a “chief of sinners” afterward reminds us t hat Second Temple Judaism cannot be our standard for judging what Paul meant.  If Paul though that the scribes had misinterpreted the Hebrew Scriptures, then he was in company with Jesus in thinking so.  Not even the disciples understand the plot that is thickening around their master as they journey toward Jerusalem, and after the resurrection they are met with consternation by an angel who, like Jesus later in the same passage, gently upbraids them for not realizing all that the Scriptures had promised concerning Christ (Luke 24: 6-7, 21-27, 44-49).  It all began to make sense for the disciples, but in retrospect.

Similarly for Paul, the disorienting experience with the cursed one as in truth the exalted one made him read the whole history of Israel and indeed of humanity with Christ at the center.  Paul not realizes that he himself s the cursed one, but that in Christ he can be found blameless, not now, going back to the requirements of the whole law, he also realizes that he has not kept them as he (and others) thought he ad.  He too stands condemned “under the law,” although he is circumcised and has always kept the dietary laws (Phil. 3: 5-6).  It is therefore clear that “works of the law” cannot be restricted to those codes of ethnic distinction.  To some extent it may even be that Paul’s Polemic is directed against his opponents’ false assumption that “works of the law” simply meant boundary markers.  Perhaps on this basis hey had therefore convinced themselves that they were law-keepers, while in fact circumcision and the dietary laws had only made them more deeply obligated to the whole law, which they had not actually kept.

Even if the NPP were exactly right in its descriptions of Second Temple Judaism, our conclusions about what Paul taught concerning the law could not be determined on that basis.  Whatever we may learn from Second Temple sources, Paul asserts that “the gospel that was proclaimed by my is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, butt I received it through revelation of Jesus  Christ” (Gal. 1: 11-12).  If we prejudice continuity with early Judaism, we will undoubtedly fail to account for the sharp confrontations and polemics of Paul’s Epistles.  (64-70)

If there are typos let me know.  Next up will be from Horton’s Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ again from the chapter “Law and Gospel: Contrast or Continuity?  From the heading  titled “The Reference Range of Nomos in Paul”

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