Continuing with my introductory looks at the New Perspective on Paul, Douglas Moo deals with the subject in his outstanding NICNT commentary on Romans. He first touches on it in a section on the theme of Romans in his introduction (pp. 22-30), but interacts more directly with Sanders and Dunn in an excursus entitled “Paul, ‘Works of the Law,’ and First-Century Judaism” (pp.211-217).
The Reformers, following Luther’s lead, made chapters 1-5 the heart of the letter with their theme of justification by faith. Stendahl thought that Luther’s problem “How can a sinful person be made right with God?” was not Paul’s. Paul rather, wanted to know how Gentiles could be incorporated with Jews into God’s people, and the “introspective conscience” of western Christians has caused them to miss the point. So, for the New Perspective, chapters 9-11 become the heart of the letter. Moo also describes other systems that make chapters 5-8 or 14-15 the expression of the central purpose of the letter.
Moo rejects the relationship between the two peoples – Jews and Gentiles – as the main theme of Romans. Instead, “the bulk of Romans focuses on how God has acted in Christ to bring the individual sinner into a new relationship with himself (chaps. 1-4), to provide for that individual’s eternal life in glory (chaps. 5-8), and to transform that individual’s life on earth now (12:1-15:13). … The individual and his relationship to God are important in Romans; and there is not as much difference between the thought world of Paul and that of Luther or ourselves as Stendahl and others think.” (p.28, emphasis his). However, Moo does not consider the theme of the letter to be justification. The theme is the gospel, a theme broad enough to encompass the diverse topics in Romans.
The excursus first considers the various options for a synthesis of Romans 2:13 (“doers of the law will be justified”) and 3:20 (“no one will be justified by the works of the law”). For Moo, the solution is the implied logical step “no one can do the law”, which is a problem of human nature that transcends ethnic divisions.
Moo then introduces Sanders’ concept of “covenantal nomism” – Judaism did not require works as a means of entry into salvation, but only to maintain their status in the covenant which they had received by election (the law was not the means of “getting in” but “staying in”). If Sanders is right, this poses a problem – what was Paul arguing against in 3:20 if no one believed you could earn your salvation? Dunn’s proposal is the “best supported and most reasonable” of the options. He views “works of the law” as referring to Jewish obedience to those laws that marked out their own peculiar national status as God’s people.
But Moo does not accept either Sander’s dilemma or Dunn’s solution. Dunn has failed to notice that Paul’s criticism goes beyond adherence to certain ethnic identity markers – in chapter 2 they are liable to judgement because of their disobedience to the law, which includes doing the “same things” (2:2-3) that the Gentiles do.
Moo also believes (along with Dunn and Wright) that Paul’s argument is an attack on “covenantal nomism”. For Paul, the promise of salvation in the Scriptures is in the Abrahamic covenant rather than the Mosaic. Along with many critics of the New Perspective, Moo believes Sanders underestimates the legalism present in both the theology and practise of Judaism of the time. “The gap between the average believer’s theological views and the informed views of religious leaders is often a wide one. If Christianity has been far from immune from legalism, it it likely to think that Judaism, at any stage of its development, was?” (p. 216)
Moo concludes with his own summary of Paul’s argument. He says “If the Jews, with the best law that one could have, could not find salvation through it, then any system of works is revealed as unable to conquer the power of sin. … ‘Works of the law’ are inadequate not because they are ‘works of the law‘, but, ultimately, because they are ‘works.’ This clearly removes the matter from the purely salvation-historical realm to the broader realm of anthropology.” (p. 217, emphasis his)