Book Review–The Message of Romans (John Stott)

I heard the news of John Stott’s death only a couple of days after I started re-reading this Romans commentary. It was one of the first of the Bible Speaks Today series that I read, and for all the numerous things he will rightly be remembered for, I feel especially thankful for his contributions to and editorship of this series. In this volume, as with his other commentaries, John Stott models a truly evangelical approach to Scripture. He comes reverently to the Bible, believing it to be the very Word of God, eager to learn, ready to engage with difficulties of exegesis and doctrine, and most of all, expecting to encounter God through it.

A book like Romans of course is a daunting task for any Bible expositor. So many notable expositors and scholars have already tackled it in great depth. And there are many tricky theological issues it raises. What is “the righteousness of God”? What is the correct understanding of the doctrine of election? What place does the people and nation of Israel have in God’s ongoing plan? Who is the conflicted man of Romans 7? Was Junia an apostle? Whatever positions you take, you certainly can’t please all of the people all of the time in a commentary on Romans.

Stott starts with a preliminary essay, which includes several pages devoted to the New Perspective on Paul. He is to be commended on two counts for including this. First, that he pays any attention to it at all. By my reckoning, it is only the likes of Tom Wright that have really brought the NPP into the general evangelical consciousness in recent years.  Yet Stott clearly saw back in 1994 that this was going to become a debating point, and tackled it head on. Second, the way he seeks to correctly understand and fairly represent the opinions of the likes of Stendahl, Dunn and Sanders is also commendable. In some places I felt he articulated their points better than they did, such is his gift for clarity. Having said that, he does not go along with the conclusions of the NPP. I have previously blogged about John Stott’s take on the New Perspective here.

One key interpretive issue in Romans is the role and purpose of the “law”. Stott explains that “For justification we look to the cross, not the law, and for sanctification we look to the Spirit, not the law.” However, he wants to disagree with those who deny the law a place in the Christian life. “The moral law remains a revelation of God’s will which he still expects his people to ‘fulfil’ by living lives of righteousness”. He attempts to find a balance between the errors of legalism and antinomianism by saying “Legalists fear the law and are in bondage to it. Antinomians hate the law and repudiate it. Law-abiding free people love the law and fulfil it.” Do Christians have to obey the law? Yes and no … “not because the law is our master and we have to but because Christ is our husband and we want to.” The Spirit empowers us to keep the law – our freedom from the law is not freedom to disobey it.

As he ponders what the “righteousness of God” is, he notes three explanations often given. Is it (1) a divine attribute (2) a divine activity (his saving intervention), or (3) a divine achievement (the righteous status we are given)? He asks why we have to choose – “it is at one and the same time a quality, an activity and a gift”. He then expands on this to define the righteousness of God as “God’s righteous initiative in putting sinners right with himself by bestowing on them a righteousness which is not their own but his.”

He takes some time to defend the biblical concept of the “wrath of God”, from those who find this doctrine objectionable (again pre-empting a debate that has gained much momentum more recently in evangelical circles). “God’s wrath is his holy hostility to evil his refusal to condone it or come to terms with it his just judgment upon it.” The human predicament is not only sin, but God’s wrath upon sin.

Stott’s take on the identity of the conflicted man in Romans 7 is interesting. He cannot see it as a believer, since “a slave to sin” cannot be a Christian, and yet neither can he accept the unbeliever explanation. He concludes that it is a “regenerate” man, but not one who has the Holy Spirit. For Stott this leaves him with no other option than saying that the ‘I’ is an Old Testament believer. Stott of course strongly rejects the Pentecostal view of a subsequent baptism in the Spirit for a believer (as he makes clear in his comments on Rom 8:14-17), so cannot entertain the possibility that this ‘I’ could be a believer fighting sin in human strength alone without the empowering of the Spirit.

Stott has occasion to touch on subjects such as election and predestination, and while he seems to accept a Calvinist position, he prefers to refer to the concept of “antinomy” – two seemingly conflicting truths being held together – such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I like his suggestion that “the perseverance of the saints” should be renamed “the perseverance of God with the saints”.

As he tackles the subject of Israel, Stott is eager to underscore the importance of evangelism for all people, including the Jews. He includes a brief “manifesto of evangelism” that summarising the teaching of Romans on evangelism.

Overall, despite not necessarily agreeing with his every viewpoint, I would say this is another excellent work and valuable for anyone personally studying or teaching through Romans. There are of course the works by Douglas Moo and Tom Schreiner which I would recommend to those wanting to go into more exegetical depth, but Stott should not be underestimated and there is plenty of well argued and thought-provoking material in here to help shape your understanding of this important New Testament book.

Augustinian Monks hit a Home Run

It’s been a while since I last posted anything on the “New Perspective on Paul”, but I found this article by Steven Westerholm to be very helpful. It’s entitled “Justification by Faith is the Answer: What is the Question?”

Rather than get embroiled in debate on the meaning of “works of the law” (which I seem to remember he’s written on elsewhere) he takes a different approach. He starts with non-Pauline (or possibly Pauline) books, then chronologically works through the Paul’s epistles. He demonstrates that Paul had a thoroughgoing concern with how an individual can be made right before God. Thus by the time he gets to Galatians, Paul can answer the question “how are Gentiles included in the people of God” (the classic NPP question), with the answer he does, precisely because it is first the answer to a more fundamental question.

I found it a very helpful way of looking at the problem, and it goes in some way to finding a mediating position, as it doesn’t deny that Paul is addressing in Galatians the question that the New Perspective advocates are claiming for him.

For reference, here’s some of my earlier posts on the New Perspective:
Carson on the New Perspective
Moo on the New Perspective
Stott on the New Perspective
Book Review – The New Perspective on Paul (Michael Thompson)

Carson on the New Perspective

Thanks to Adrian Warnock for alerting me to some online lectures by Don Carson on the New Perspective. Lecture 1 Lecture 2 Lecture 3.

Carson is the editor of two large books on the subject of the New Perspective (Justification and Variegated Nomism), which provide responses to the claims of Sanders, Dunn et al. I don’t have the time to read these at the moment, so the lectures are useful as a way of getting a summary of his viewpoint as well as a chance to hear his response to some of the NP criticisms of those books.

Lecture 1 gives a fairly succinct overview of the NP, while the other 2 lectures are used to provide a basic response. Carson does acknowledge that he has much respect for N T Wright, but particularly lays into his making the exile theme the controlling paradigm for his theology. Also, as a bonus, Lecture 3 includes the story of how Douglas Moo got his name!

Moo on the New Perspective

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)

Stott on the New Perspective

Thanks to Peter Bogert, for pointing out that John Stott’s BST volume on Romans contains a brief analysis of the New Perspective (I read it 5 years ago before I had even heard of the New Perspective). It was published in 1984 and doesn’t interact with N T Wright’s view on justification, but nevertheless it provides an excellent introduction. In keeping with the style of the Bible Speaks Today series, no specialist vocabulary or background knowledge of historical theology is assumed. It is section 2 of the “Preliminary Essay”, entitled “New Challenges to Old Traditions” (pp. 24-31).

Stott first introduces us to the ideas of Stendahl, who argued that Calvin was wrong to believe that the main theme of Romans is justification by faith. Rather, it was written to defend he rights of Gentiles to be full heirs of Israel’s promises, apart from the law. Stott feels this is an unnecessarily sharp antithesis, and is far from convinced that Paul’s pre-Christian conscience was as robust as Stendahl claims.

He writes, “Paul was indeed deeply exercised, as the apostle to the Gentiles, about the place of the law in salvation and about the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the one body of Christ. But he was also evidently concerned to expound and defend the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone. In fact, the two concerns, far from being incompatible, are inextricably interwoven. Only loyalty to the gospel can secure unity in the church.”

Stott then moves on to consider Sander’s contribution. Sanders wanted to destroy the notion that Palestinian Judaism was a religion of legalistic works-righteousness, and argued that instead they believed in “covenantal nomism” – their obedience to the law was a response to the covenant of grace. Or, in now familiar terms, they “get in” by God’s gracious election, but “stay in” by obedience. Stott then summarises Sander’s interpretation of Paul’s teaching and notes that “categories of human sin and guilt, the wrath of God, justification by grace without works, and peace with God in consequence, are conspicuous by their absence.”

Stott presents five points of objection to Sander’s thesis that Paul was not objecting to self-righteousness. He questions whether the evidence on Jewish teaching is as uniform as Sanders claims, and notes that “popular religion may diverge widely from the official literature of its leaders”. Just because they weren’t ‘officially’ legalistic doesn’t mean many weren’t in practise. Our human nature tends towards being self-centred and proud. It would be surprising if all the Jews were somehow immune from this tendency. In any case, for Paul, “getting in” and “staying in” were both by grace alone.

Contra Räisänen, Paul was not confused about the law, struggling how a divine institution could be abolished. Stott explains that for Paul, in both the areas of justification and sanctification, we are not under law but grace. “For justification we look to the cross, not the law, and for sanctification to the Spirit, not the law. It is only by the Spirit that the law can be fulfilled in us”.

Finally, Stott considers Dunn’s claim that “works of the law” refer not to good works but ethnic identity markers. Paul therefore only objected to a boastful sense of national privilege and ethnic exclusivity. Stott agrees that Paul objected to these, but drawing on Westerholm, claims that “law” and “works of the law” can be shown to have wider reference to good works in general.

Though Stott has rejected some of the New Perspective teaching, he does not see it as being entirely without merit. In conclusion he states “… we can be profoundly thankful for the scholarly insistence that the Gentile question is central to Romans. The redefinition and reconstitution of the people of God, as comprising Jewish and Gentile believers on equal terms, is a critical theme which pervades the letter.”

Book Review – The New Perspective on Paul (Michael B Thompson)

This short booklet (29 pages) can be purchased from Grove Books in either printed or PDF format (£2.75 either way). Despite the abundance of material on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), there is a real shortage of accessible introductory material that presents the issues clearly and fairly. Thompson does this admirably and his task is helped by his moderately neutral stance on the issue.

After a brief introduction, the ‘Old’ Perspective is described, with particular reference to Luther’s understanding of Jewish theology. He summarises the ‘Lutheran’ position in six points and then highlights problems with each that have given rise to the New Perspective. He does not unfortunately attempt to define a non-Lutheran ‘Old Perspective’, and the points end up being something of a straw man that many from the Old Perspective could easily knock down.

Chapter 3 attempts to explain the New Perspective by outlining the theology of three leading proponents – Sanders, Dunn and Wright. Sanders denied that Judaism taught salvation earned by good deeds, but that rather these works helped Jews to stay in the covenant. Dunn built on this by defining “works of the law” as those things that marked the Jews as insiders as opposed to the Gentiles, hence they are not to be thought of in terms of basic moral behaviour. Thompson broadly agrees but is not sure that all references to ‘works of the law’ can be defined in such narrow terms. Wright’s alternative definition of ‘justification’ is explained, along with his distinctive emphasis of the exile theme – that God will sort out evil and deliver his people. Thompson notes that not all have been convinced by this, and especially some evangelicals are concerned about the loss of imputation from the concept of justification.

Chapter 4 provides some of Thompson’s own insights into Paul’s letters. He emphasises the Jewish belief that the law was a good gift, but that for Paul he had come to see that Jesus was the ultimate gift. However many Jews had rejected Jesus and persecuted Paul, and some Christian Jews were effectively rejecting the sufficiency of the cross with their requirements on Gentile converts. Thompson helpfully summarises both Paul’s criticism and respect for the law. He does not however, address to what degree Paul expected Jewish believers to adhere to the law.

Chapter 5 summarises the evangelical criticism of the New Perspective. He argues that the concern that justification by faith is being lost in favour of salvation by works is not justified. But he does believe that the NPP brings a much-needed emphasis on our Christian behaviour in addition to faith. Another concern is whether this signals an end to evangelisation of the Jews, which he is a little unclear on. He does believe it the gospel should be preached to Jews but hints that Jews can be saved by grace without the gospel (I may have misunderstood him here though).

Chapter 6 brings the positives of the New Perspective, which at the very least has caused people to study their Bibles more thoroughly. Thompson does not believe all the texts fit either view perfectly, but the NPP brings much light to the flow of argument in Romans and elsewhere. He also believes that NPP can help bring a corrective against antinomian tendencies.

The booklet concludes with a bibliography, and a web link to what is the premier online resource for New Perspective research – the Paul Page. This booklet is by far the best introductory material to the New Perspective I have read, and shows sensitivity to both sides of the debate as well as evangelical concerns. Its relatively brief size will be welcomed by anyone who just wants to grasp the basics before diving into the much longer books and papers available. There are a few points on which his argumentation is weak, and he doesn’t allow himself to be drawn on the imputation debate, but his conclusions are not overly ambitious and provide food for thought for evangelicals from either perspective. The booklet will also serve as a handy reference to the main texts in the Pauline corpus that are pertinent to the debate.

New Perspective Song

A year ago, after doing some reading on the New Perspective on Paul (and getting thoroughly confused by it) I wrote a song about it. I’m sure this must be the first song on the New Perspective! I quickly recorded it planning to come back and polish up the words, singing, drums and guitar parts later, but never got round to it. It looks like I’m never going to find the time to finish it properly, so I’ve put it on my music page in its current form for anyone who’s interested to have a listen. Here’s a direct link to the MP3 (its about 3Mb).

It was inspired by the following article by N T Wright:

It’s not intended as an endorsement of the New Perspective on Paul, but the debate over it has raised some important issues. Is it possible that, like the Thessalonian Jews, we can be vigourous defenders of scriptural orthodoxy while at the same time being blind to what it is actually saying.

The lyrics are below (the first line is a quote from NTW)

Verse 1:
Self appointed guardians of orthodoxy
The only way we see it is the way its always been
Calamity is looming for those who leave the path
But those who stay in the way will have the last laugh

Verse 2:
Don’t arrogantly tell me you’ve found a better way
Thanks to all this extra knowledge scholars have today
Our revelation’s final, tradition’s set in stone
So if you don’t agree with us, you’re out there on your own

How could it be wrong
We’ve known it for so long
When all we try to do
Is stick to what is true

Verse 3:
Those who went before us, we love their memory
They dared to speak their minds and they were charged with heresy
We follow in their footsteps, hang on their every word
To think they could have got wrong has got to be absurd

We need to find a new perspective
Admit that sometimes we’ve been wrong
There are some things that we know for certain
But we’ve still got a lot to learn