The Foundation of the New Perspective
ARTICLE BY JEFFREY WADDINGTON AUGUST 2017
Robert J. Cara, Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology. Reformed Exegetical and Doctrinal Studies Series. Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus/Mentor, 2017. 312pp. Bibliography and indices. Paperback. $19.99.
Admittedly the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) isn’t so new anymore. As a significant scholarly hermeneutical movement, it goes back at least as far as the late 1970s with the groundbreaking work of E. P. Sanders. It goes back even further if we take into consideration the endeavors of a Montefiore and a Moore. The NPP is old enough now to have had a plethora of erudite nuanced critical responses (one thinks of Newman, Gathercole, Westerholm, Kim, Carson, Waters, and the like). As I write this review, my scanning of the web has revealed several new studies slated for forthcoming release. One of the most recent, and I would suggest, best interactions with the NPP is Robert Cara’s Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul. I believe Cara succeeds on many levels. Before I get to my assessment I want to describe what Cara has done.
Cracking the Foundation is divided into four chapters, followed by a concluding summary and an appendix on Jewish literary sources. The first chapter (19-36) is a fine introduction to the NPP and its relation to the doctrine of justification and the question which is a bug-a-bear for any serious interaction with the NPP: is it a unified movement, therefore justifying the appellation New Perspective or is the movement a conglomeration of different perspectives whose only unity is in the rejection of the traditional Lutheran and Reformed reading of Paul and the Second Temple Judaism that lay behind him? In looking at this question Dr. Cara seeks to focus his attention on E. P. (Ed) Sanders’ argument that the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a legalistic works-righteousness based religion but was a grace-based faith and that this perspective was nearly universal across the spectrum of views representative of Second Temple Judaism. In a nutshell, covenantal nomism is the view that one gains entrance to the people of God by election (i.e., grace) and stays in by obedience to the Law (i.e., works).
The second chapter (37-75) is devoted to providing clarifying definition (one is tempted to say the author provides 4K or Ultra HD clarification) as to what works-righteousness is and what it entails. Cara sets the two hermeneutical-theological systems of covenantal nomism and the classic Reformed bi-covenantal framework side by side. This is a wise move since there is some formal similarity between the two views that could be and indeed has been confused for substantial agreement. The author first looks at classic Reformed covenant theology with its covenant of works and covenant of grace and the traditional distinction between uses of the Law (specifically the second and third uses of the Law involving the Law as schoolmaster which leads us to Christ and the Law as a guide to the Christian life) and Cara concludes the first half of this chapter with the burning question about the final judgement and justification and their relationship to one another. Cara is to be commended for his clarity of expression and explanations of what can be very technical material. The second half of the chapter is devoted to the history of the covenantal nomism idea in the work of Sanders and his precursors (C. G. Montefiore, George Foote Moore, and Krister Stendahl) and successors (specifically James D. G. Dunn and Nicholas Thomas [Tom]Wright). The author then delineates the features of covenantal nomism and offers an initial critique. At the very least, these two systems of thought are neither identical nor similar. To use somewhat anachronistic systematic terms (which are nevertheless very accurate), Second Temple Judaism, variegated as it really was, included at least semi-Pelagian sentiments. Neither full-scale Pelagianism nor semi-Pelagianism are healthy or biblical.
The third chapter (77-125) involves an examination of a variety of Jewish literary sources more or less influential in Paul’s time and his Jewish world. The author recommends readers unfamiliar with the literature to read the appendix on the Jewish sources before delving into the third chapter and that makes solid sense. The appendix (207-272) provides not only a helpful survey of the kinds of literature deriving from the Second Temple period, but it offers principles of evaluation and assessment. At the very least we readers can gain insight into the author’s method of evaluating the multitude of literary sources he sifts through. An example is whether a given text is reflective of Pharisaical thinking in Paul’s day or whether it reflects later developments. It is not as simple as dating the text proper, but also ascertaining whether the theology expressed reflects an earlier age. Getting back to the third chapter, Cara looks at texts from the Apocrypha, the OT Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Rabbinic literature (the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud, etc). Cara demonstrates that at least some within the Second Temple Jewish period expressed a works-righteousness orientation.
The fourth chapter (127-195) provides a look at works-righteousness in the so-called “Deutero-Pauline” books (books which Cara rightly believes really were authored by the Apostle Paul but which many critical scholars, including NPP writers, believe were not written by Paul but perhaps by disciples of Paul. These books, usually ignored in studies on Paul in the NPP literature, include Second Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, First and Second Timothy, and Titus. Because these texts are bypassed in both constructing a Pauline biblical theology and then assessing what problems Paul had with the Judaism of his day, Cara sees the necessity of giving them their due. Specifically, Cara puts Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:4-7, and Second Timothy 1:8-10 under the microscope. Before offering his own assessment of the substance of these passages, he reviews the perspective of three non-NPP scholars on these texts (I. Howard Marshall, Michael Walter, and John M. G. Barclay). Having closely examined these passages Cara concludes that these three texts clearly address the problem of works-righteousness in the world of the Apostle Paul. Following his own exegesis of these texts, the author looks at the assessment of these passages by Sanders, Dunn, and Wright. Cara concludes the chapter by offering critiques of these scholars on these texts. As Cara rightly notes, even if you think these books were not authored by Paul, you would still need to account for such a clear misunderstanding of Paul by his disciples at such an early date.
Dr. Cara concludes with a summary of his work (197-205). This is extremely helpful since it would be quite easy to lose the forest for all the trees. We are reminded that E. P. Sanders offered his covenantal nomistic reading of Second Temple Judaism as an all-pervasive gracious pattern of religion. Cara rehearses the ground that has been covered in this book and concludes that some, at least, within the fold of Second Temple Judaism did express a works-righteousness orientation. This undermines Sanders’ thesis about the gracious nature of covenantal nomism. Sanders, as others have pointed out, fails to reckon with the idea of grace assisting a sinner rather than raising the spiritually dead to life. It also undermines the nearly universal extent of this pattern of religion. If there were elements within Second Temple Judaism that did embrace works-righteousness then the classic Lutheran and Reformed reading of Paul (the so-called “old perspective on Paul”) has no need of revision and the foundation of the whole NPP enterprise is revealed to be called into question. It turns out that Paul was addressing perennial issues that never seem to die away. It is part and parcel of fallen human nature to try to find acceptance with God based upon our own works-righteousness (i.e., merit).
Robert J. Cara succeeds at making his case on at least three levels. One, he writes with crystal clear prose. The style is both straightforward and elegant. Profound scholars do not always make the best and clearest writers. Writing like this is deceptively simple. What one finds easy to read was most assuredly not easy to write. Two, Cara focuses his attention on the Sanders’ covenantal nomism thesis and therefore sets aside otherwise interesting and tempting bunny trails. The NPP movement is wide and varied and it would take and indeed has taken multitudes of tomes to address it. At the end of the day what unites the disparate NPP scholars is the mere rejection of the old Protestant perspective on Paul. Third, the author marshals the incriminating evidence that there were in fact people and groups within Second Temple Judaism that held to a works-righteousness religion. To defeat Sanders’ thesis Cara did not have to demonstrate that all sects within Second Temple Judaism were works-righteousness oriented. All he needed to do, and this he handily did, was to show that at least one sect or group held to a legalistic works-based faith. The foundation of the whole NPP enterprise is on shaky ground. This is not to say that everything any NPP scholar has written is worthless (that is patently false and absurd), but that the driving premise of the NPP is misdirected. Cara has produced a work of surpassing worth and will no doubt be the standard work on the topic for many years to come.