In my previous post, I offering a different frame for interpreting Paul’s letters, particularly the idea of justification by works of laws as a matter of self-deception for Paul. However, I briefly alluded to an idea that I did not thoroughly develop is that I suggest that for Paul there is a collapse of covenantal nomism. E.P. Sanders describe covenantal nomism as follows:
In favour of the use of the term ‘soteriology’ is that it points to a concern which is central to Judaism: a concern to be properly rather than improperly religious, to serve God rather than to desert his way, to be ‘in’ rather than ‘out’. When a man is concerned to be ‘in’ rather than ‘out’, we may consider him to have a ‘soteriological’ concern, even though he may have no view concerning an afterlife at all. There does appear to be in Rabbinic Judaism a coherent and all-pervasive view of what constitutes the essence of Jewish religion and of how that religion ‘works’, and we shall occasionally, for the sake of convenience, call this view ‘soteriology’. The all-pervasive view can be summarized in the phrase ‘covenantal nomism’. Briefly put, covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.1
In other words, covenantal nomism holds that the purpose of the works of the Torah was part of one maintenance of one’s status as part of God’s covenant people. Early Protestant theology consider justification to be a matter of how one gets saved, whereas Sanders influenced the later New Perspective on Paul to see justification as a matter of one’s status and identity: what does it mean to be part of God’s chosen people? If I may appeal to marriage as a metaphor, the traditional Protestant view focuses on how one goes from being single to being married, whereas the New Perspective of Paul is focused on how one should live once one gets married so that one doesn’t get divorced. (To extend this metaphor to the apocalyptic school of Paul in this metaphor, they would say it isn’t about getting married but in falling in love.)
However, it should be stated that Sander’s evidence for covenantal nomism rests primarily on Rabbinic evidence. While this does not rule out the covenantal nomism pattern throughout all of 1st century Judaism as Sanders, the Rabbinic evidence best situates covenantal nomism with the Pharisees prior to the destruction of the Temple. Meanwhile, the possibility of the collapsing of covenantal nomism remains a possibility within Judaism such that the pattern is not constitutive of all of 1st century Judaism. For instance, Sanders considers 4 Ezra to have lost a covenantal nomism and become concerned with a legalistic perfectionism.
Furthermore, such a pattern would certainly flexibly adapted for the social and religious circumstances a religious group or sect. For instance, the Qumran covenanters represent one way is which covenantal nomism, while not necessarily becoming absent becomes radically transformed. Since they saw Israel as a whole as apostate due to moral failings, becoming part of God’s elect entails a certain moral transformation of the person. One’s election by God is evidenced by one’s attitudes, particularly in listening to and attending to God. Whereas one’s membership in the elect people would be considered passed on by a combination of birth and circumcision by more mainstream Judaism, the Qumranian community saw certain ethical attitudes as a necessary consequence of one’s election. This is evidenced by their sharp dualism, such as in the doctrine of the two spirits, that categorizes all people according to their religious and ethical status; there is no liminal phase between the righteous and unrighteous. One can not simultaneously be unrighteous and recipients of the covenant, whereas in traditional covenantal nomism the offering of sacrifices provided a means for allowing people to remain part of the covenant despite their unrighteousness. While one can still maintain a sense of covenantal nomism in seeing a distinction between getting in and staying in, both getting in and staying in retain sharp ethical requirements that would counter the potential ethical complacency that might be seen to arise from a view of membership in God’s covenant based upon birth and the ritual of circumcision. I would suggest Qumran represents a community where covenantal nomism is on the verge of collapsing but becomes reconceived.
A good analogy for this shift in views of membership in God’s people in Western theology is the holiness movement of John Wesley. Seeing the ethical complacency of a Christian culture that saw their infant baptism as evidence of their inclusion in God’s community, Wesley challenged many people as “almost Christians” that had more so a sense of righteousness that resembled the pagans. While Wesley was not as sharply dualistic as the Qumran covenanters since Wesley allowed a more liminal category of people who were influenced by God’s grace but had not come to faith in his doctrine of prevenient grace, the redefinition of membership to become more consciously ethical represents a response to a religious context where it is deemed that people think their religious identity is grounded upon events that are not evidence of ethical conviction. The point is not that the Qumran covenantors and the Wesleyan holiness revival are exactly equivalent, but rather to show that understandings of membership in God’s People both in how one becomes a member and one stays a member can be radically reconstituted in the face what is perceived to be deep moral failings.
I would suggest something similar has happened in Paul that has lead to not just simply a redefinition of what it means to become a member of God’s people and then to stay a member through one’s righteousness, but a stark collapse of the distinction between coming in and staying in. The catalyst for such a judgment? The crucifixion and widespread Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. That the very people to whom God gave the Torah to rejected the Messiah suggests there was a fundamental problem in what it means to belong to God’s People, hence Paul offers a redefinition of election.
Romans 9-11 offers evidence of this redefinition of election and membership taking place. In Romans 9.6-18, Paul redefines election as not being constituted by a genealogical ancestry. Rather than God’s mercy being a condition of the national election of all of Israel, God’s mercy is the condition for personal election. However, Paul clarifies himself to not suggest that Israel is rejected as a whole, but he does afford a special status to Israel as being foreknown in virtue of their ancestry; but this status in God’s eyes is not the election of all of Israel and it is a matter of God’s faithfulness to the Jewish patriarchs rather than to their descendants. To put more analytically, Paul includes a third, liminal status for the people of Israel that rejected Jesus as Messiah: they are enemies of the Gospel, but because of God’s election running through his promises to the patriarchs, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are loved even if they are not themselves individually part of the elect.
Meanwhile, Paul’s discussion on justification in Romans 3-8 and in Galatians represents the reconceptualization of what God’s People are to be like. The problem with trying to be justified by works of the Torah, as I have argued is largely a problem of self-deception. Romans 2 highlights this self-deception in the judgmental attitude by hypothetical Jews who boast in the Torah towards the Gentile world. Then, in Romans 7, Paul describes the way sin residing in the flesh deceives the hearer of the Torah such that there is no escape from within themselves from sin, but that they must be delivered by Christ. The problem is that of seeking to assure one’s status as part of God’s People based upon how one obeys Torah actually puts an epistemic veil over the eyes of people, because they are no longer paying attention to and focused on God but on the letter of the Torah. They think they are being instructed by God by hearing the Torah that God gave, when in fact Paul would argue that sin has deceived them in the hearing and reading that they only have knowledge about their own sin but not about God’s own righteous nature.
However, Paul’s answer to this problem presents a distinct challenge to covenantal nomism. Covenantal nomism assumes that one’s reading of the Torah is sufficient to be able to come to obey God; if however, one’s own reliance of the Torah ends up leading one astray through the self-deceptive power of sin, then the pattern of covenantal nomism collapses from within due to the impossibility of obeying God through Torah.
Paul’s pointing to faith as the means of justification, which Abraham had prior to receiving any covenant, goes back to the psychological conditions that are necessary for obedience. One’s status with God as part of the righteous is assured not by being dutiful in reading, interpreting, and practicing the Torah but by a trust in God that attends to His instruction. While this instruction would certainly include Torah as source for teaching about sin, Paul sees in Jesus the highest form of God’s teaching humanity about His own righteousness and in the Spirit the way in which people become conforming to the pattern of righteousness and life in Jesus Christ. To pay attention to only the Torah as if it is the linguistic ’embodiment’ of righteousness means one misses Jesus Christ as the human embodiment of God’s very own righteousness. In faith, one receives Christ as the Lord and as the demonstration of God’s will for humanity. Only in faith can one apprehend the Righteous Jesus and be transformed by the Spirit to be like Him.
In addition, Paul’s definition of justification itself shifts such that is ceases to be solely retrospective in that one is justified based solely upon one’s past, but it also becomes prospective based upon the eschatological future. When Paul speaks of the ungodly being justified by God in Romans 4.5, Paul no longer considers justification in God’s eyes to be conditioned simply upon one’s past behavior. Rather Paul’s usage of justification in Romans 6.7 suggests that Paul sees justification being related to the future of the believer’s life in participation in Christ; God’s justifying of humanity is prospective, focusing on the believer’s future in Christ. We can see this concern for the prospective future in Galatians. Paul see the person who has been justified in God’s eyes being set upon a new horizon and future in which they have been set free so that they may wait for the hope of righteousness (Galatians 5.1, 5.5), although a future righteous behavior is not guaranteed and thus one must learn how to love one (Gal. 5.13-15) through the cultivating work of the Spirit (Gal. 5.22-26). In other ones, in faith people’s future is to become conformed to Jesus Christ. We might suggest that for Paul, God’s justification is both retrospective AND prospective, taking the whole of the human life into account. Hence, Paul can say that the final judgment that justification is based upon what one did (Romans 2.6-16) that is a purely retrospective account, but prior to the eschaton, God’s justification incorporates a prospective account of a person who through faith will be formed into the pattern of God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ.
In exapnding upon this understanding of election and justification, I am trying to demonstrate my thesis: the very categories of covenantal nomism, at least as proposed by E.P. Sanders cannot account for Paul’s own view on justification. Rather, the pattern of covenantal nomism that Paul would have been familiar with as a Pharisee entirely collapses in the face of Jesus Christ and the widespread Jewish rejection of His Messiahship. Instead, Paul sees the entirety of people’s membership in God’s People, both in getting in and staying in, as perpetually conditioned upon a continuous response of faith to God’s grace.
This allows me to construct two different, hypothetical models of divine-human synergism that I think represent the Pharisees and Paul. The Jewish historian Josephus describes the Pharisees as thinking humans both have free will while believing that God’s actions make things so. Questions have been brought up by NT Wright and others about how much stock we can put into Josephus’ account on free will, suggesting Josephus is essentially “translating” Jewish doctrine into the concepts of Greek philosophy. While I think such a distinction can be overplayed, I would think it is merited to suggest there is a connection between the Pharisaical synergism and the pattern of covenantal nomism; if one is a member of God’s covenant people in virtue of God’s mercy, but then one is responsible for obedience to God, there is what we might refer to as a diachronic synergism: God’s actions and human actions are both consequential for people’s future over the course of time. God establishes one’s place in the covenant and then one responds in faith.
One distinctive pattern of a diachronic synergism is that God and human action would be construed sequentially. God’s action enable human obedience. This can then be turned into a sequential synergism which would make human action as conditioning to God’s past action that provides a once-for-all enablement of human action. It is this pattern that covenantal nomism could potentially fit within, suggesting God’s prior historical election of the Patriarchs and giving of the Torah has included the people of Israel into the covenant and made obedience to God possible. As a consequence, the tradition of the Patriachs and the Torah takes priority in the understanding and governance of the Jewish life.
To be clear, I am not arguing that this is in fact the intellectual understanding of the Pharisees. Rather, this represents a more practical model of how a covenantal nomism would work in practice, even if the theological explication would be different. It is this practical model, not theoretical, that I would contend Paul’s understanding of grace and faith is developed in response to.
I would propose that Paul has a synchronic synergism, in which human righteousness is at all points of time conditioned upon a human response in faith to God’s grace, both in the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus but also the present Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. There is no point in time where human action alone is sufficient on its own capacity to know and obey God, but that the course of the life from initial baptism into Christ to the transformation into the image of Jesus Christ is always conditioned to God’s grace actively working in the Spirit. The net effect of this is that distinction between election and justification become blurred, as both election and justification is conditioned upon God’s grace responded to and receiving in faith. One’s election and possession of the benefits of such election like the Torah does not provide what is epistemically and morally sufficient to know and obey God.
It is this perpetual, synchronic synergism that I think undergirds Paul’s argument in Galatians. It seems to me that Paul thinks the other teachers who are encouraging the Galatians to be circumcised and obey the Torah are suggesting that Paul will ultimately tell the Galatians that they need to be circumcised and obey Torah. Furthermore, it seems there is some concern about how one spiritually develops in Galatians, hence Paul talks about beginning by the Spirit and coming to completion (Galatians 3.3) and employs the cultivating metaphor in talking about the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23). Concerns about development could be explained by the proponents of circumcision retaining a pattern of covenantal nomism, where the Galatians are considered to elected and called by Jesus Christ but after coming to the faith they are now to obey the Torah in virtue of this election. Paul’s discourse emphasizes that it is always the Spirit, from the beginning when one is called by Christ and towards maturity, rather than there being any difference. Development cannot be broken down into discrete phases of God’s actions and human obedience to Torah; the Gentiles were not only called because of Jesus (Gal. 1.6), but His death shows that the Torah is not how one becomes justified (Gal. 2.21).2
In other words, I would contend that when it comes to the place of God’s action human faith and obedience, there is no distinction between how one becomes a part of Christ and how one remains in Christ for Paul. God’s grace manifested in Christ and given to the person through the Spirit is always received and responded to in faith. At no point does the believer shift into a “more mature” version of spirituality and religion, as new life and obedience is always conditioned people being responsive to God’s actions. This also overlaps with Paul’s discourse about wisdom in 1 Cor. 2, where it is the Triune action of the God demonstrated in Christ and communally realized through the actions of the Spirit that makes the initially coming to faith and the later possession of wisdom about God possible.
In other words, the distinctions of covenantal nomism collapse for Paul. As a consequence, it was easy for Protestant Reformation to see the language of justification as pertained to how one gets saved, because Paul’s language of grace is applicable both for “getting saved” and “remaining saved.” As a consequence, Paul’s discourse that relates grace to salvation, such as in Ephesians 2, is seen as defined Paul’s discourse about justification, as if election/salvation and justification are exact synonyms. However, if I am correct, the collapse of covenantal nomism would mean the concepts of election/salvation and justification blur into each other in virtue of the necessity of God’s grace and human faith for both, but that Paul understands these concepts as distinct based upon how they function within the covenantal nomism of his Pharisaical background.
- Sanders, E. P.. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: 40th Anniversary Edition. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
- While we have no direct evidence that a diachronic synergism as represented in a covenantal nomism is what Paul opponents in Galatia hold to, I would contend that Paul’s oppositional response to a familiar form covenantal nomism that has inserted Christ at the phase of election is a) historically sensitive, b) parsimonious and c) provides a coheres for understand Paul’s discourse in Galatians.