A Serious Challenge to the New Perspective on Paul

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

July 7, 2016

As most readers know, there has been a long scholarly debate over what is known as the New Perspective(s) on Paul (NPP). This approach argues that “justification” in Paul does not mean what many Christians (especially Reformed folks) have always believed.

In short, NPP advocates (e.g., N.T. Wright, James D.G. Dunn) argue that (a) first-century Judaism was not a works-oriented religion, and (b) “justification by faith” is not referring to the acquisition of a righteous status before God, but instead refers to the fact that membership in the covenant community can be obtained without the standard Jewish boundary markers laid out in the law of Moses (inset is a picture of Mt. Sinai).

One of the major flash points in this debate is the term “righteousness of God.” Paul uses this phrase in a number of places, but it takes center stage particularly in Romans. Indeed, one might suggest that the “righteousness of God” is the theme of the entire book:

For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Rom 1:17).

So, what does this phrase mean? NPP advocates say it refers simply to God’s covenantal faithfulness. Reformed theologians have argued that it refers to a righteous status received from God.

It is on this very question that NPP advocates are facing a new and robust challenge from Lee Irons’ recent volume, The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015). The volume is part of the prestigious Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (WUNT) series.

This volume is a revised version of Irons’ Ph.D. dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary.

I am slowly working my way through the book and have not yet finished it. But, my assessment thus far is that this volume presents one of the most thorough and cogent rebuttals to the NPP in quite a while.

A fantastic and thorough review of this book has just been written by Robert Cara, Professor of New Testament here at RTS Charlotte. The review has recently appeared in the newly released RTS journal, Reformed Faith and Practice.

Cara’s review does an excellent job laying out Irons’ case in extensive detail and is a first stop for anyone looking for a better grasp of this book and the larger debates over the NPP.

Cara concludes his review:

The primary strength of Irons’s work is his consistent explanation of how the lexical evidence fits together within the primary setting of a judge (and/or a king acting as a judge) that is judging against a norm. Pulling together all of the righteousness language demonstrates the various aspects of the semantic range that include righteous judging (positive and negative), righteous judgments, righteous behavior, and correctness (e.g., righteous weights). This in turn explains how the “righteousness of God” in Paul can include both iustitia distributiva (attribute of a righteous judge) in Rom 3:5, 25, 26 and the gift of righteousness (forensic righteousness based on the imputed righteous “behavior” of Christ) in the remainder of verses. Irons also provides answers to why God’s righteousness is often paralleled to God’s salvation in the OT and DSS. God’s salvation (iustitia salutifera) in these contexts is a subset of God’s attribute of justice (iustitia distributiva). Irons is not saying anything new with this view, but it is the comprehensiveness of the data covered and the rebuttals of the relational/covenantal view that makes this book stand out…

In sum, this is an important book that makes a contribution to scholarship concerning the “righteousness of God” in Paul. Yes, Irons’s conclusions support the traditional Reformational view. But he has added to the discussion (1) a comprehensive presentation of the lexical data for “righteousness” and (2) an historical explanation of and various rebuttals to the relational/covenantal view. Due to the price of this book, I imagine that not many of the readers of this journal will be going directly to Amazon after reading this review. However, given the importance of justification, readers ought to be aware of its value.

You can get Irons’ book here (but you may want to get your credit rating checked first!), and you can get Cara’s review here.

See also the great review of Irons’ book from Thom Schreiner which can be found here.

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