09e. Excursus: Additional Tough Phrasing Review (Part A)

09e. Excursus: Additional Tough Phrasing Review (Part A)

*In the live class, which roughly follows the written notes, this recording represented the return from a semester break in which I had to do a refresher teaching to get the class back up to speed.  I began with the following notes (which are actually out of sequence with the larger teaching):

Covenantal Nomism

What Nanos and other recent scholars (E.P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright, et al) are describing, as pertaining to Paul’s 1st century Judaism and how it reportedly defined itself, has been carefully labeled as Covenantal Nomism.   Indeed, a “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) is on the rise.   What is Covenantal Nomism?  Theopedia.com provides a brief description for us to examine:

Covenantal Nomism is the belief that first century Palestinian Jews did not believe in works righteousness. Essentially, it is the belief that one is brought into the Abrahamic covenant through birth and one stays in the covenant through works. Suggests that the Jewish view of relationship with God is that keeping the law is based only on a prior understanding of relationship with God. 

Quoting from Sanders and Wright in the same article they go on to include a brief discussion about the problems with the traditional “Lutheran” view of Paul and suggest that the new perspective on Paul (NPP) actually exonerates 1st century Judaism from the centuries-long charge of being a works-based religion:

A fundamental premise in the NPP is that Judaism was actually a religion of grace. Sander's puts it clearly:

"On the point at which many have found the decisive contrast between Paul and Judaism - grace and works - Paul is in agreement with Palestinian Judaism... Salvation is by grace but judgment is according to works'...God saves by grace, but... within the framework established by grace he rewards good deeds and punishes transgression." (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 543)

N.T. Wright adds that, "we have misjudged early Judaism, especially Pharisaism, if we have thought of it as an early version of Pelagianism," (Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 32). However, Stephen Westerholm adds caution to such a quickly drawn conclusion:

"While one may enthusiastically endorse the 'new perspective' dictum that first-century Judaism was a religion of grace and acknowledge that it represents an important corrective of earlier caricatures, it is hardly pedantic to point out that more precision is needed before such a statement can illuminate a discussion of the 'Lutheran' Paul. Pelagius and Augustine - to take but the most obvious examples - both believed in human dependence on divine grace, but they construed that dependence very differently" (Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, pp. 261-262).

Thus, as Westerholm points out, although first century Judaism may have believed in grace, it becomes even more important to establish why they believed in grace and how this effected [sic] their view of salvation. Those from the NPP seem quick to jump to the conclusion that first-century Judaism was in agreement with the same understanding of grace found within the NT and Paul's theology. Again, as Westerholm notes above, this "grace" can be understood very differently. 

I understand that the prevailing Judaisms that existed in the first century initially upset the biblical balance by teaching that circumcision was the vehicle by which a non-Jew could and must enter the covenant made with Isra'el.  Shame on them!  To be sure, a whole theological council was formulated to deal with the problem in the first century.  Both in Acts 15:1-35, as well as 21:17-26, the Yerushalayim Council had to address the issue of “returning to the works of the law” as opposed to “living in the freedom of Messiah”.  And what is the meaning of “works of the law”?  Surely it does NOT refer “correct and true faith-driven observance of written Torah commands”!  No, what this technical phrase is referring to is a set of halakhic rules that an individual must ally himself with in order to be received into a specific and exclusive community..

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