E.P. Sanders and N.T Wright

I have three questions on the so-called "new perspective(s)" on Paul:
  1. Has any Reformed scholar attempted a thorough critque of E.P. Sanders' work?
  2. What should we make of the work of N.T. Wright? So many people seem to love his writings, but it seems that he has significantly modified the historic Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone in light of the recent flowering of scholarly ink spilt on second-temple Judaism. Moreover, he seems allergic to a solid doctrine of Biblical infallibility/inerrancy.
  3. If Sanders is right about the covenantal nomism of second-temple Judaism, is the Old Testament itself covenantal nomistic? How do we adequately account for the fact that they lost their land because they did not continue in the covenant?
1. I'm unaware of any particularly Reformed responses to E.P. Sanders, but I'm not sure one is necessary. I'm also not sure a thorough response is necessary. Sanders has basically only one point worth worrying about, and the rest of his problematic material is based on that point. That point is a redefinition of "justification" (or, to use Sander's vocabulary, "righteousing") as a description of conversion or transference from an unsaved to a saved state. The view of justification that he rejects is the view that justification is a forensic declaration of righteousness.

It should be noted that this view of justification which Sanders rejects is not, in fact, the traditional Reformed view of justification. Rather, it is part of that view. The Reformed view of justification is actually much more detailed and more complicated that Sanders seems to recognize. Specifically, the Reformed view is: 1) that God justifies a sinner by a one-time forensic declaration that the sinner is righteous -- this is the preliminary act of justification; 2) that this act of justification by God results in a state of justification in which the sinner continues to exist; and 3) at the last judgment God will affirm his prior declaration of righteousness with yet another judicial declaration of righteousness. To use Sander's vocubulary again, the Reformed view is that justification is not just about "getting in," but also about "staying in." One remains saved only so long as one's state of justification is maintained. In the Reformed view, Jesus' heavenly session is the active work that continues to maintain the sinner's state of justification, such that the sinner can never lose his state of justification and therefore can never lose his salvation. There are plenty of good defenses of this Reformed position that set forth exegetical arguments which Sanders never addresses.

It should also be noted that Sanders rejects whatever portions of Scriptures he feels he needs to reject in order to establish his point. For example, he accepts only seven of Paul's letters (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon), and rejects the notion that Paul attempted any ministry to Jews as attested in Acts. Even in those texts which he does accept, at critical junctures in his argument he does precious little exegetical work, preferring to argue from assertion. What exegetical work he does do generally based on these assumed but not proven assertions.

Sanders may be correct that Judaism did not teach salvation completely by works, or what we might consider today to be Pelagian soteriology, but given his work with the New Testament I'm not willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he has interpreted Judaic sources correctly. If he is correct, though, the Reformed definition of justification still answers all the right questions, and need not be adjusted at all to account for Paul's language. Specifically, if Sanders is correct that works entered the Judaic scheme at the point of "staying in" rather than at the point of "getting in," then Paul's argument may be seen to emphasize the continuing state of justification rather than God's forensic act (N.T. Wright argues that Paul was emphasizing "staying in," but does not consider the Reformed option to be an answer). And Sanders still fails in all respects to demonstrate from the Pauline corpus that anyone may ever lose his justification, which point is essential to Sanders' argument.

2. N.T. Wright has done some decent work over the years. Recently, however, he also came out with an insufficient redefinition of "justification." In Wright's view, "justification" is an ecclesiastical term identifying who the covenant people of God are. To be justified, in his reading, is to belong to the covenant people of God. For him, "righteousness" means "covenant membership." The obvious problem that this definition can't possibly do justice to the contexts in which various forms of the word "justify" and "righteousness" appear (both from the same Greek root). For example, Paul's argument in Romans 1-5 is that man's problem is God's wrath, and the solution is not covenant membership but forgiveness. Consider for example Romans 4:6-8: "David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 'Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.'" Clearly in this context "righteousness" is both imputed ("credits," "take into account") and pertains to forgiveness of sins rather than to covenant membership.

Sanders incorrectly concludes that justification has only to do with "getting in"; Wright incorrectly concludes that it has only to do with "staying in." Neither presents a definition that makes sense in the literary contexts of the uses of words like "justification" and "righteousness," and neither acknowledges or attempts to address the Reformed doctrine which answers all questions sufficiently. The objections raised by Wright and Sanders are not to the Reformed doctrine, but to the Lutheran doctrine, to the Arminian doctrine, to reductionistic views of the Reformed doctrine, etc.

Dr. C.E. Hill at Reformed Theological Seminary has written a brief response to N.T. Wright's doctrine of justification which is available on this site.

3. Sanders may be right about Judaism between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 (the period he surveyed), but I wouldn't equate that with Second-Temple Judaism (which began at least 300 years prior to the beginning of the period Sanders surveyed). It would be a mistake to assume that the religion of Judaism at the time that the Jews rejected Christ was identical to their religion at the time that God was restoring them to the Promised Land. For one thing, it is evident from the failure of the restoration effort that the Jews did not remain faithful to God. If they had remained faithful, the restoration effort would have succeeded. Their failure points to a degeneration and corruption of their religion. In fact, such syncretism is evident even in Ezra-Nehemiah as the restoration effort flounders.

The essence of Sanders' "covenantal nomism" in relation to justification is that membership in the covenant is by election, and that proper behavior within the covenant relationship results in salvation. The covenant relationship itself must be maintained by good works and proper atonement, and works are the basis for God's consequent reward or punishment. In this system, "getting in" is not on the basis of works, but "staying in" is at least partly on that basis (with the mediating factor of atonement). This "staying in" aspect is actually not too far a cry from a traditional Arminian construction of salvation in Christ.

This view assumes that meritorious works may be done apart from God's grace, but there is no biblical support for this position. Other than that, it does not offer any challenge to the Reformed construction of justification. Paul's point was not that our faith takes the place of good works or atonement. Rather, it was that Jesus takes our place as the one responsible for doing good works and offering atonement, and that faith is the means by which we are united to Christ and thereby receive the benefits of his status as perfect covenant keeper before God.

Perhaps Paul's opponents did argue that one could begin ("get in") by grace, but then had to keep the law (offering proper atonement was part of keeping the law, not a separate issue) in order to remain in a justified state ("stay in"). This may be part of what Paul opposed in Galatians 3:1ff. Then too, it may be that Paul's opponents also focused on God's final declaration of justification at the last judgment -- this explains Paul's references to future justification (e.g. Gal. 2:16).

Paul's doctrine of justification was complex, as reflected in the Reformed doctrine of justification. It was not limited to God's initial forensic declaration. Rather, it included the consequent state of justification, and culminated in the final affirmation of justification at the last judgment. Sanders challenges what he perceives to be the traditional doctrine of justification, but the doctrine he challenges is not the Reformed doctrine. He argues, "You say it's A; I say it's B, therefore it can't be A." Reformed doctrine says, "It's A, B and C." Seen in this light, Sanders' entire argument is based on a false dichotomy.

Sanders' covenantal nomism does rightly recognize that the covenant was and continues to be conditional. Israel lost the land because they failed to keep the stipulations of the covenant. But it wrongly fails to recognize the effects of total depravity insofar as it assumes an ability on the part of individual Israelites to achieve any positive merit by their own works. Covenantal nomism also wrongly assumes that the system of atonement under temple worship was efficacious without reference to Christ. The New Testament writers make Sander's errors abundantly clear, and their commentary on the Old Testament is authoritative and infallible. For a detailed account of the theology that demonstrates why Israel lost the Promised Land, I'll refer you to an article on our site by Dr. Richard Pratt: Historical Contingencies and Biblical Predictions.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.