III. Individual vs. Communal: Traditional and New Perspective Approaches
The competition of interpretations of Paul’s anthropology has its parallel in broader exegetical issues concerning the role of the Law in Paul’s thought. The various interpretations as to the role of the Law are contrasted nicely in their respective understanding of the broader purpose of Romans. Because we have limited the scope of this essay to the book of Romans, it is to the question of its purpose that we will now turn. Again, rather than following closely the actual text itself at this point, I will limit myself to characterizing the positions themselves, rather than the particular arguments for their positions.
The watershed moment in Pauline scholarship came at the publication of E.P. Sanders’ tome Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders argues that the characterization of first-century Judaism that Pauline scholarship has adopted from the time of Luther is misguided. In sum, first-century Judaism was not a religion where acceptance by God is earned through merit that is based on righteousness through works. In the words of Dunn:
Judaism’s whole religious self-understanding was based on the premise of grace—that God had freely chosen Israel and made his covenant with Israel, to be their God and they his people. This covenant relationship was regulated by the law, not as a way of entering the covenant, or of gaining merit, but as the way of living within the covenant…
This attitude is termed “covenental nomism” by Sanders, a phrase that has become common parlance within Pauline scholarship.
This re-characterization of Judaism has had significant implications for Pauline scholarship. Though there is significant diversity within those who hold the “New Perspective,” it seems there is general agreement that the central question for Paul is not, “How is man justified (or brought in to right status) with God,” but “How do we tell who is a member of the covenant people of God?” The debate centers on the doctrine of justification by faith, namely the meaning of the “righteousness of God.” Luther had construed the “righteousness of God” as an ethical quality of God that was imputed to us through faith. This receiving was “justification.” The re-characterization of Judaism brought a new understanding of this doctrine. In the words of Sanders, “Righteousness in Judaism is a term which implies the maintenance of status among the group of God’s elect.” In the words of New Perspective proponent N.T. Wright, “Faith is the badge of covenant membership, not something some ‘performs’ as a kind of initiation test.” Paul’s contention in Romans and Galatians is that covenant membership is no longer dependent upon “having the Law” or physical circumcision. Justification becomes the doctrine not of “getting in,” but of delineating “who is in.” The discontinuity with Judaism occurs as a result of the new “boundary markers”—whereas before it was Law observance, now it is faith.
Clearly this reorientation has profound effects on our reading of Paul. In no soft language, Wright engages his imaginary interlocutor:
If you respond that the entire epistle to the Romans is a description of how persons become Christians, and that justification is central there, I will answer, anticipating my later argument, that this way of reading Romans has systematically done violence to that text for hundreds of years, and that it is time for the text itself be heard again.
And what does Romans tell us? Justification “wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as the church.” Traditional Protestant exegesis of Romans had focused on how the individual is made right with God, but this reorientation has caused exegetes to make the relationship between Jews and Gentiles within the covenant people of God central.
One significant advantage to this reorientation of Romans is that chapters 9-11 gain more significance within the argument of Romans, rather than being viewed as an excursus by Paul, as they often have been. However, Douglas Moo’s judicious words should be well heeded:
But to make the relationship between the two peoples—Jews and Gentiles—the theme of Romans, with the transformation of the individual a subordinate, supporting concept, is to reverse their relationship in the letter, to confuse background with foreground. The scholars who have put “people” questions at the center of Romans have overreacted to the neglect of these matters among some earlier interpreters. 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 the individual’s eternal life in glory (chaps. 5-8), and to transform that individual’s life on earth now (12:1-15:13).
Moo explains 9-11 by arguing that Paul has to explain how his emphasis on individual transformation “relates to God’s focus on Israel in the OT.”
It is not my intention to commend either Moo’s more traditional interpretation or the “new perspective” reading of Romans to you at this point. Rather, all I have endeavored thus far to do is demonstrate parallel lines of interpretations in Pauline scholarship, each focusing primarily on either the individual or community. No connection between the two exegetical areas (anthropology and justification) has been drawn. To draw attention again to the relevancy of both these surveys, understanding Paul’s argument in Romans 4 is crucial to the interpretation of justification, and it will be argued in what follows that Paul has anthropological underpinnings for his argument there.
Other Posts in this series: