Putting Paul in Perspective: Legalistic or Nationalistic

(This is the fifth article in a series assessing and critiquing the New Perspective on Paul)


As we have considered the New Perspective thus far we have had a large measure of (exegetical) agreement and some measured, qualified (historical) disagreement. Now we turn to the fourth issue, which is actually the first with which we have significant disagreement.  Was (Second Temple) Judaism a religion of merit or a religion of grace?  As we consider these last two items I must say that that they reveal what seems to me to be theologians’ perennial temptation to pastoral naïveté. In this respect, New Perspective theologians appear to be no exception to the general rule.

Bear with me for a moment, but Judaism is an abstraction and does not actually exist. Second Temple Judaism is likewise an abstraction. There may be times when it is a helpful abstraction, but the standing problem with all abstractions is that those who traffic in them tend to reify them in the process, and by the end of the day, we have serious theological confusion.

It is true that the Jews lived as the covenant people, but the ism of Judaism is the kind of thing you get off the page of a tome. (As the fellow said, beware of all isms except for prisms.) After He was given universal dominion (Dan. 7:13), Jesus Christ destroyed Jerusalem, and He did nothing whatever to Judaism. He leveled a city because of its wickedness; He did not edit an idea. He killed many wicked hypocrites, he did not overthrow technically correct language on a page. Jesus said that the Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat (Matt. 23:1-3). Their Judaism was therefore creedally correct (for the most part), and the New Perspective is therefore correct about them (in this trivial sense). But note that when Jesus said that they sat in Moses’ seat, He said it in His preamble to some of the most scathing words of the New Testament. When the New Testament tells us that the Pharisees were doctrinally closer to the mark than were the Saduccees, this was quite true, but it wasn’t exactly the same thing as a compliment.

Consider the example of the Pharisee praying in the Temple alongside the publican. Everything he said was orthodox, and in full accord with what the New Perspective says about Judaism—I thank thee, God, that I am not like other men (Luke 18:9-14). His confession was fully orthodox, and on paper he was affirming one of the five solas of the Reformation. He was clearly not advocating a religion of works. Soli Deo gloria! But he had a heart full of works nonetheless, which is the whole point of Jesus’ story, and he consequently went home unjustified. Nevertheless, he was a circumcised member of the justified people. According to the parable, he was a hypocrite, which presupposes the rightness of what he professes to believe. Hypocrites are only hypocrites when they propositionally affirm truth but practically deny it.

A New Perspective theologian might therefore discover a book written by this particular Pharisee and demonstrate for us all that his Judaism was not a religion of works. Of course it was not. But the rebellious unconverted heart is always a religion of works unto itself, and will turn anything into works, and that includes high-octane grace alone-ism. But a first-century peasant listening to this shrewd parable winks at the right part of the story and gets the point. The Pharisee was lying.

And the generation of Jews against whom the blood of the prophets rose up to testify came was judged because God did not believe them either. When they said they believed in the grace of God, He did not believe them. They were lying too. So why should we start believing them now?

Judaism as an abstraction is fine (and always was), but that kind of Judaism is a paper thing. Judgment fell on a wicked generation, not on an ism. There was never a problem with Moses’ seat itself; the problem was with the Pharisaical hinderparts ensconced there. Sons of Abraham should display a family resemblance to him, and whenever they don’t, they like to haul out their pedigree papers—as though the kingdom of God were like a really good line of Labrador retrievers.

So, the real contrast is between faithful Jews and unfaithful Jews. Judaism did not descend into Sheol, Capernaum did. Judaism did not see the Messiah, Simeon did. And this is where I suspect (in this New Perspective emphasis on Second Temple Judaism) an ecumenical ruse. When we are told that first-century Jews were not Pelagians, but held to a religion of grace, I believe that liberal New Perspectve men (like Sanders) are wanting to say that they weren’t that bad after all. But this would mean that Jesus was wrong-headed in His destruction of them when He razed Jerusalem. I’d rather stick with His perspective.

When the New Perspective addresses this question, they want to say that the problem of Judaism was nationalist zeal as distinct from a Pelagian and monkish zeal. And yet here is the strange thing, and the point where I think additional clarifications must be made.

Nationalist bigotry is simply one more application of the broad sin of autonomy and legalism. I understand the essential legalistic attitude to be one of self-righteousness. This is the container of all evils, the jar of all mischief. What it contains may vary; the standards of self-righteousness vary from one legalistic community to another. Some legalists prohibit dancing, others alcohol, others fraternizing with Gentiles, and still others are now trying to prohibit reading the Westminster Confession in its 17th century sense. They flavor the juice inside their jars differently, but in the final outcome what they want to use to commend themselves to God is preferred over what God actually requires of them. The jar always has the same monotonous shape, and has Me printed on the label. In the final analysis, there is only self-righteousness or God-righteousness because there are only two final destinations after the Judgment. No one condemned to hell has a reasonable point.

Pelagius and Caiphas differed in that their standards of self-righteousness differed; they are the same in that they both insist on such a self-righteousness. Of course, first-century Jews were not Pelagian in the details of their lives. Nor were they Pelagian in their creed. But they were Pelagian at heart, just as Pelagius was a Pharisee at heart. This is what Paul is addressing, for example, when he calls the unbelieving Jews Ishamaelites. Sons of Sarah, are you? No! You are sons of Hagar. But there were countless senses in which they were not sons of Hagar. But in the essential respect, the point under discussion, they were. If it is somehow unfair to call first-century rabbis Pelagians, then how was it fair to call them Ishamelites?

The Christian faith fights the brood of the serpent from the beginning of the battle to the end of it. That worm brood shows up in the strangest places—rabbinical schools, monasteries, Reformed seminaries, temperance meetings, and presbyteries. But it is always the same battle; it is always the same serpent we must crush.

Theologians tend to pour over the creeds, and note all the differences and similarities. I even think they are right much of the time. But practicing pastors should be able to identify the monotonous egoism that accompanies all sinning. This egoism can come out even when the creed embraced is the very antithesis of what the ego is actually doing with it. To illustrate this, take John Newton’s point about some Calvinists who take pride in the fact that they have a creed that does not allow them to take pride in anything. The human heart truly is a marvel!

And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of . . . Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace.

God must have all the glory, and some are His enemies because of the way they affirm this very truth. Several centuries from now, we might see the development of a “new perspective” on die-hard and bitter Calvinism. The words of the confessions would be read and taken at face value—grace! grace! grace alone!—but the inconsistency with a true, robust and biblical Calvinism (and the resultant graciousness) would be missed. This would be because the hypocritical inconsistencies got buried when the people who embodied them died.

So pride is not connected to a particular set of mechanics, and given the potential perversity of the human heart, that kind of pride can function anywhere. Affirm merit, and self-righteousness can take pride in affirming it. Deny merit, and self-righteousness can take pride in denying it. This means there is no problem with the denial that a formal medieval merit theology was operative in first-century Judaism. But in my mind, this is like saying the evil self-righteousness of the first century was painted blue, and the evil self-righteousness of the 16th century was painted light blue. When the difference is between two shades of the same color who really cares?

This is why some conservatives among the Reformed are making noise about the gospel being at stake. We must affirm that the gospel is the answer to the universal human problem, which is self-righteousness. If the gospel is entirely contexualized in a first-century setting, with no principle to guide us in extending it to our lives, then what shall we do? This is why there are reasonable men among the UberReformed who are worried because they believe that the New Perspective contains more than a few advocates who appear to be theologically brilliant but pastorally naive. The problem is that they fear we have let down our guard against this perennial temptation to self-righteousness because they think we have not emphatically stated that nationalistic bigotry is just one more species in the universal genus of legalistic self-righteousness. But once we have made that point clear—that the difference between the works of Alexander VI and Caiphas is really the difference between dog-skubalon and cat-skubalon, both of them belonging to the same excremental genus—I think the reasonable guys in the conservative Reformed world would settle way down. However, the unreasonable fellows among them—Pharisees in their own right—will not settle down regardless of what is said or done.

Returning to the earlier instance of the Pharisee and the publican, suppose the argument comes back at us that the contrast in that parable was not for the sake of those who wondered how they could establish a relationship with God. This argument says that these things are not in Scripture so that we could learn how to “come to Jesus.” Rather, covenant faithfulness is about staying in, not about getting in.

Going back to my objection to Sanders, I regard this as true but trivial. We are to walk the way we started to walk. We maintain the same way we began, which is to say, by faith. Salvation is by faith from first to last. As you received Christ Jesus as Lord, so walk in Him (Col. 2:6). Someone who tries to keep himself in relationship with God by being self-righteous is likely one who presented himself for baptism for the same reason. Rather, we are to start by faith, walk by faith, finish by faith. The antithesis of this faith is self-righteousness. What does it matter when the self-righteousness came out? The pox may appear on the skin at many different times, but the disease is always the same.

The parable was directed against those who thought they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. We need to place due emphasis on the phrase “who thought they were righteous.” People who preen themselves on their own righteousness go home unjustified even if they were baptized in a joint service with the pope and Billy Graham officiating. The self-righteous can trust in anything but Christ. Those who have the righteousness of Christ can trust in anything but themselves. Which means they are trusting in Christ alone.

This should not be a complicated problem. It seems to me that many of our difficulties with this are because we do not want to acknowledge that there are two on-going categories among the sanctified—the sanctified and the unsanctified. Among the justified we find the same division—the justified and the unjustified. Among the baptized elect we find the elect and the non-elect. And this is not the creed of some kind of Zen Reformation. It is basic to all spiritual wisdom. In Abraham’s tent we find descendants of both Sarah and Hagar. And this is why the Church today, all sons of Abraham, contains so many Ishmaelites.


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