Book Review

[K:NWTS 20/3 (Dec 2005) 52-61]

Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul: A Review and a Response. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004. 237 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-87552-649-7. $16.99.

In this book, Dr. Waters presents a historical survey of New Testament scholarship leading up to and including new perspective authors such as E.P. Sanders, H. Raisannen, J.D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright. This is followed by his own critique of the movement and his assessment of its inroads into Reformed Christianity. This book is generally well-written (even if a bit repetitious toward the end). Dr. Waters gives us helpful summaries of points he has discussed (e.g., Sanders on Paul, pp. 87-89; Sanders on Rabbinic Judaism, pp. 51-53; N.T. Wright, pp. 148-49; etc.) And he provides a useful bibliography of sources at the end (pp. 213-37). Overall, this book should provide its readers with a good introduction to the subject from a defender of Reformed Orthodoxy.

In addition to treating the specific subject of Paul and the law, Dr. Waters unveils some of the general exegetical assumptions of NPP (New Perspective on Paul) authors. For instance, Dr. Waters has noted N.T. Wright's purely horizontal approach to theology. This is connected with his dislike of traditional dogmatic and metaphysical categories and his this-worldly eschatology with its social agenda. We may note that this has lead Dr. Wright to claim, for instance, that Romans 9 does not talk about election and reprobation in the way envisioned by systematic theology (a la Augustine); rather it speaks of the history of redemption (the patriarchs, the exodus, the prophets). However to pit these things against each other is to deny that horizontal redemptive history reveals something about the vertical life of God and his people. As Dr. Waters has shown, this is a form of nominalism in which words lack metaphysical referents. We might add that, following the critique of Sabellianism, the church has said that what God does in history reveals something about who he is in his eternal life. N.T. Wright denies this in practice. While Dr. Waters does not explore the philosophical underpinnings of Wright's Critical Realism, he shows that it is a denial of "objectivism," which he implies is a purely Enlightenment phenomena (wrongly we might add).

Wright's views on revelation cause him to pit the horizontal against the vertical, an approach truly at odds with any sound orthodox biblical theology. And the views of Sanders and Dunn are no better.

Dr. Waters's historical sections are among the most extensive on books of the subject. After highlighting the Reformation and its doctrine of justification, he begins a historical description of New Testament scholarship. Here he traces out certain lines of thought (beginning with F.C. Baur) that will be picked up by NPP authors. Baur's antithesis between Pauline and Petrine Christianity will lead to the rejection of Pauline letters that don't seem to contain this tension (p. 5). Thus, Sanders and Dunn don't accept as Pauline the teaching of "works" in Ephesians and the Pastorals which Dunn admits are against his view (p. 167). In addition, Baur's anti-thesis focuses subsequent New Testament scholars on issues of justification, faith, works, and law (p. 6). Wilhelm Wrede's view (that "justification was simply a polemical device to which Paul resorted in his conflict with Judaism" (p. 10) is followed by Albert Schweitzer (p. 12). Then it's picked up by NPP authors who don't believe Paul's doctrine of justification is critical to his doctrine of salvation.

Some of the other historical sections can be seen as a footnote to E.P. Sanders. As a previous student of Sanders, Dr. Waters does an excellent job summarizing his views on Palestinian Judaism (pp. 35-58). His historical survey has brought us to this point. While noting Bultmann's existential twist on justification (p.17), Waters carefully lays out the view of Judaism held by Bultmann that is later rejected by Sanders (pp. 16-17). This view included the belief that one's "merits" would be weighed against one's "demerits" on the day of judgement to determine final salvation. W. D. Davies sets the stage for a reevaluation of this view of Judaism. Davies presents a Paul who is essentially in continuity with first century Judaism. This will be followed by Sander's insistence that the Rabbis didn't really teach merit (p. 41). They taught "covenantal nomism," a kind of Semi-Pelagian covenant of grace (defined in eight points on the top of p. 38).

This provides the background against which Sanders, Dunn, and Wright interpret Paul. As Dr. Waters notes they argue in the following manner: The Judaism of Paul's day did not teach salvation by works. So Paul's polemic against the Judaizers cannot be a polemic against salvation by works. Therefore, Paul's contrast between justification and works of the law must have a different meaning altogether.

Dr. Waters takes this premise to task in at least several ways. First, he shows how Sanders massages numerous Rabbinic texts teaching merit (meriting the land or redemption), and presents a more probable interpretation of these passages (pp. 38-44). He does something similar with Rabbinic passages on "Damnation for one Transgression" and "Salvation for a Single Righteous Act" (pp. 42-47) along with quotes on atonement, repentance, and suffering (pp. 48-51).

Second, he notes that several scholars have questioned Sanders's reassessment of first century Judaism (pp. 152-53). Further, Sanders even fails to see the meritorious implications of his own view of Judaism because of his own Semi-Pelagian interpretation of Paul on the doctrines of electing grace and justification. In this reviewer's opinion, this should be apparent to any Reformed reader of Sanders (e.g., see quotes from Sanders on pp. 38-40) and provide good reason to reevaluate his conclusions. In fact, Waters quotes a passage from Sanders about Rabbinic views that seems to represent pure Pelagianism. "This is not the same as being born in a state of sinfulness from which liberation is necessary. Sin comes only when man actually disobeys" (p. 41).

Third, Dr. Waters points out that our interpretation of Second Temple Judaism cannot be definitive for our understanding of Paul since Paul should be interpreted primarily by comparing his statements with one another. In light of this, he evaluates Pauline passages that discuss the "works of the law." Sanders, Dunn, and Wright essentially agree that "works of the law" in Paul refer to people's status within Judaism (e.g., by certain badges such as circumcision, sabbath, etc.—so Dunn) rather than their activity. As a result, they claim that Paul is not critiquing the idea that people can attain merit before God through their progressive acts of obedience. While not denying that "works of the law" also refers to status, Dr. Waters shows that these texts clearly include human activity.

We would suggest that Dr. Waters's argument on the "works of the law" as activity is further confirmed by seeing their contrast (justification) within an eschatological context. For the absolute contrast between works of the law and justification that Dr. Waters defends is highlighted by Paul with the relative contrast between the period the law and the present time (Gal. 3:21-4:7). "So that we might be justified by faith" suggests a semi-eschatological newness of justification in the present time (Gal. 3:24 and 23). This newness can be defined using a distinction Dr. Waters implicitly notes against the Auburn Avenue Theology (p. 208), that between the covenant experienced externally (or formally) in distinction from the covenant experienced really. Under the law, those who experienced the blessing of justification really could still be under the curses of the covenant formally (as they were in exile, e.g., Daniel in Daniel 9, cursed and ashamed). But now that Christ has born the curse eschatologically (Gal. 3:10 with its historical consequence of the blessing of the Spirit to the Gentiles, cf. 3:14) the justification of New Testament saints includes deliverance even from the formal curse of God. Thus Paul is not ashamed of the gospel (Rom. 1:16) for the time has come in which we have been justified by faith in a new way.

If this relative contrast is true of justification it must be true of the works of the law contrasted to it. (And both display the absolute contrast between justification and sinful works.) Thus Paul is denying that Israel's obedience of accumulated activity (could bring in the semi-eschatological age (involving semi-eschatological justification). This is contrary to the NPP's claim that works of the law refers to "status" only. Though "works of the law" presupposes Israel's unique status (now changed in the new era though semi-eschatological justification), it clearly portrays these works as the historical activity of Israel. In claiming Israel's works could not bring in the eschatological age (Rom. 8:3), Paul denies her historical accumulation of merit.

Instead, only Christ could merit the eschatological age. Dr. Waters's insistence (along with the Reformed tradition) that the law required perfection (Gal. 5:3) may here take on eschatological significance. For if the eschatological age were to come someone must keep the whole law perfectly. This is done only by Christ.

This further strengthens the view that Paul saw in the Judaizers a propensity for works righteousness. For Paul says that Christ is useless for those who seek the Spirit by the "works of the law" (Gal. 3:3) now that Christ has been crucified (Gal. 3:1). Prior to Christ's crucifixion seeking circumcision as obligatory (for instance) would be proper presumably because the recipient could see in it an anticipation of Christ. But now that Christ has been crucified, if anyone takes on the sign they show thereby that they do not see it as pointing to Christ. They are seeking to be justified by law (Gal. 5:2-4). They have absolutized it along with the whole Old Testament administration. Thus, they have absolutized the works of the law (which from the point of view of Old Testament believers) pointed them to Christ. But those who live under the old era after the new has come, absolutize it and treat it like an era of absolute merit. In other words, if they fail to see that the semi-eschatological age has come by grace, then they fail to see that their own personal salvation (which is grounded in eschatological salvation) is by grace. They have absolutized the law as a religion of merit.

In light of this we would ask Dr. Waters to reevaluate some of his exegetical conclusions. First, it seems to us that Dr. Waters denies a connection between the new exodus as a background to the Righteousness of God. This seems excessive to us.

This may arise from another possible tendency in his book, i.e., the undervaluing of backgrounds for understanding Paul's arguments—backgrounds from the Greco-Roman world, first century Judaism, and perhaps even the Old Testament itself (by far the most important, since it belongs to a different order of things—divine revelation). His approach at focusing on Paul's specific arguments undermines the tendency of Sanders, Dunn, and Wright to gloss over Paul's specific arguments as they impose upon Paul their understanding of Palestinian Judaism. Waters's analysis of "works of the Law" is most useful in this regard. Still, the other extreme, as Dr. Waters well knows, is represented by Sanders when he claims that Paul simply quotes Old Testament texts because they contain the terms that he wants to use for his argument. Dr. Waters makes it clear that he wants to avoid this extreme and we believe he does. Still, Sanders represents an extreme on a continuum for recognizing the significance for Old Testament backgrounds in interpreting Paul. And while Dr. Waters is no where close to that extreme, we feel that he tips a little too close to that side of reducing Paul's arguments to his bare words (understood in their barer meaning).

We would suggest (as Dr. Waters would probably admit) that the meaning of words and arguments are informed by their context. And the organic continuum of revelation in the Old Testament forms the background for Paul's specific arguments. Discovering the proper background for a text can follow relatively objective criteria. The interpreter can discover which strands of previous revelation inform a specific argument in Paul by comparing that argument (with its language, lead words, concepts, and themes) to that of previous revelation. Finding connections with previous strands of Old Testament revelation, the interpreter may further confirm these connections by seeing whether they enlighten Paul's specific argument at hand and allow it to be seen in a slightly new light which sheds even more light on his argument as a whole in that epistle. This is similar to the process leading from hypothesis to theory in the natural sciences.

In light of this, Paul need not say in direct propositional language (clear to any 21st century reader) that he is speaking about the new David, new creation, or new exodus. At points this will be very explicit. At other times associated clusters of ideas, words, and themes will come together to make this clear to those steeped in the Old Testament and its prophetic literature. And it will be confirmed as this Old Testament revelation gives greater clarity to Paul's specific arguments.

On the other extreme of the NPP, when it comes to seeing Old Testament backgrounds in Paul, is N.T. Wright who often doesn't put on the breaks that the scientific method of investigation requires in testing his hypotheses carefully by the specific words of the text. This broad-brush approach fits together with his unorthodoxy and anti-metaphysical perspective—which is not checked by the text.

Dr. Waters rightly critiques N.T. Wright for his broad-brush approach and over emphasis on the new exodus motif. However, in doing so (as we noted), Dr. Waters seems to deny that the Righteousness of God in Romans has any connection to the new exodus (p. 180). He sees this as the "imposition of a foreign biblical-theological model upon the text of Paul." Later, Dr. Waters affirms the proper use of biblical theology. His concern is to see that it is not set at odds with systematic theology. And this is laudable and important in light of Wright's agenda. However, in light of his discussion (on p. 180), we believe he does not see any connection between the Righteousness of God and the new exodus. We would simply ask him to reconsider this point—and that it might strengthen the Reformation's doctrine of justification rather than undermine it.

We believe that the Righteousness of God in Romans refers both to God's own eternal righteousness (revealed most fully in the new exodus) and to the passive reception of that righteousness (merited for us in Christ) and received by imputation through faith alone. Thus, the Righteousness of God is both active (though not the active righteousness by which he judges sinners, a la Gabriel Biel, but the active righteousness by which he judges the sins of his people in Christ) and passive (received by imputation to believers). We believe this undermines (rather than supports) the views of Dunn and Wright.

Several statements and themes in Romans appear to point in this direction. First, Romans 3:25-26 speaks about God demonstrating his righteousness, a clear reference to God's own eternal righteousness actively expressed in redeeming his people. The result of this action is that "God might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." Thus, Paul puts God's active and passive righteousness together. And God is said to have "demonstrated" active righteousness at the "present time" (the "now" of v. 21). Dr. Waters notes Romans 3:25-26. But then, dismissing any connection between this and the new exodus, he dismisses the connection between the Righteousness of God and the new exodus (p. 180), and by implication with the eschatological arrival of Christ (whether seen in terms of new exodus or other comparable prophetic themes). In light of the other themes in Romans, we do not see why Romans 3:25-26 may not reflect on God's patience in an eschatological context (e.g., perhaps texts like Isaiah 30:18 or 48:9).

We would ask Dr. Waters to consider that the glorification of God's name in Romans is connected to the semi-eschatological work of Christ (9:17's reflection on the first exodus pointing to the new 9:25-26). And this in turn is connected to the Righteousness of God. The background to God's name being glorified is its being put to shame by Israel (2:24, a quote relating to the exile). Connected with this in the prophetic material is the nations implicit claim that their gods were more powerful than the God of Israel because they captured his people. Thus they judged the name of God. Paul notes that God's name is judged (Rom. 3:4) but he prevails over this judgment. He glorifies his name in a way reminiscent of prophetic texts such as Isaiah 48:9-11, Ezekiel 20:39-44, and 36:16-32. And this new eschatological reversal takes place in the coming of the Gentiles "for his name's sake" (1:5). Paul then connects this to the keeping of God's promises (which results in the praise of his name (Rom. 15:8-9). Romans 3:4 and 7 connect God's righteousness to his truth, and thus we can see this fulfillment of his promises as the fulfillment of his righteousness. This then connects God's righteousness to the theme of his truthfulness throughout the letter.

Admittedly, to substantiate this line of argument would require more detailed exegesis than this review would allow, but it is meant to be suggestive. Still, most critically, we would note that this approach undermines Wright's views of atonement and justification. For the apparent dilemma in Ezekiel (from a human point of view) is 'how will God judge his people in covenant curse and at the same time glorify his name by bringing them into an eternal inheritance forever?' The answer ultimately seems to be that (having freely chosen to save them) he must send his Son to bear their curse eschatologically (propitiation) and he must raise him from the dead forever (no longer to be under the curse). Only then will his people not be put to shame (both actually and formally, Rom. 1:16). And only then will he reveal his eschatological righteousness and power forever.

If they are to receive such a justification, it must be perfect and thus by way of perfect imputation. Anything less would not deliver them (either formally or actually) from the curse. And the eschatological age will not have arrived semi-eschatologically. It is this great salvation that is experienced before the time actually by all the Old Testament saints (Rom. 4:7-8).

In all of this Christ is the hinge point. He is central. And him who knew no sin became sin for us that we might be the righteousness of God in him. Thus he was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). And he has brought eschatological glory to his church, the glory of righteousness and life in him—yea, in God himself and his own righteousness, now revealed in the fullness of the time in Christ.

On another point of exegesis, Dr. Waters rightly shows how NPP authors have misused Romans 2 to muddle their doctrine of justification. However in doing this, we believe he goes too far when he denies that Romans 2:28-29 refers to New Testament believers. For Dr. Waters, this text simply shows that the perfect standard of the law required perfection inwardly as well as outwardly. To our mind this is mistaken. A view that this refers to New Testament believers need not imply that "Gentile Christians will keep the law and so be justified by this obedience" (p. 177).

At the same time, we believe most of Dr. Waters's exegesis clearly shows the faults of the NPP on not only the works of the law (pp. 158-170), but also justification (pp. 170-75), and the imputation of Adam's sin and Christ's righteousness (pp. 181-183). These arguments are clear, straightforward, and cogently presented. Dr. Wright's analysis of the theological implications of the New Perspective is also to the point (pp. 185-190). His final observation is that "the NPP have forced this dichotomy" [i.e. between justification as an ecclesiological doctrine verses justification as soteriological] "in order to permit rapprochement with Rome" (p. 190). This is the final conclusion of the NPP on justification and it fits in well with N.T. Wright's interest in the Ecumenical Movement.

Finally, Dr. Waters asks why many in Reformed churches are drawn to the New Perspective. He notes similarities between N.T. Wright and many in Reformed churches who are concerned with social activism (pp. 200-01) as well as those who disparage systematic theology in the name of biblical theology (pp. 202). And he correctly notes the ignorance of Reformed orthodoxy among so many men seeking the ministry (p. 2004). May his call be heeded with more of these candidates immersing themselves in the original sources of Reformed orthodoxy.

In addition, Dr. Waters points out the similarities between the Auburn Avenue Theology, Norman Shepherd, and the New Perspective (pp. 204-212). And a number of his observations (of 2004) seem to have been borne out by the Auburn Avenue conference of 2005, in which many of these Reformed men turned their interest away from orthodox theologians to N.T. Wright.

There is far more that could be said about this book. It is well worth reading for its analysis of the historical discussion, its criticism of the NPP, and its defense of the Reformation's doctrines of propitiation and justification. Hopefully it will help hold back the tide of Reformed readers who are turning toward the NPP—and will return them to the centrality of Christ—he alone is our salvation and righteousness. To him alone belongs the glory forever and ever.

Scott F. Sanborn