Paul and Covenantal Nomism

Michael S. Horton
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Sep/Oct 2003

In advancing what has come to be called "the new perspective on Paul," E. P. Sanders argues strenuously that the Judaism in Paul's day was not "legalistic," as traditional Protestant readings maintain, but that it was characterized by "covenantal nomism." Legalism claims that we can become righteous simply by choosing to obey God's commandments. Covenantal nomism holds, in contrast, that righteousness is a matter of being part of God's covenant people, which is initially a matter of grace-"getting in" to God's covenant is a matter of God's "electing" or choosing-but then becomes a matter of obedience-"staying in" God's covenant requires obeying the stipulations that come with it, which make Torah, God's law. Sanders concludes that if Paul was in fact reacting against legalistic works-righteousness, then he was wrong to take Judaism as his target. Other "new perspective" theologians, such as James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright, think Sanders is right about first-century Judaism not being legalistic, but they then attempt in varying degrees to reconcile Paul with "covenantal nomism" against the classic "Reformation" reading of Paul.

Covenantal nomism also holds that the average Jewish person may sin and yet remain in the covenant through repentance, renewed obedience to the law, and (according to some major rabbinical sources) the "merit of the fathers"-the faithful deeds of the patriarchs. The condition for remaining in the covenant is not, then, successfully fulfilling all of God's commandments-it is not legalistic perfectionism-but freely intending to obey them. The fact that covenantal nomism provides for transgressions and does not require perfect obedience means, for Sanders and others, that it was after all a religion of grace.

It is unclear how such "covenantal nomism" is significantly different from the medieval system that the reformers rejected, even if we grant many of Sanders's points about first-century Judaism. To be sure, the Judaism of Paul's day was not simply pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps Pelagianism; and it has been a travesty of Protestant interpretation to suggest as much. Yet late medieval Roman Catholic teaching was not such a raw Pelagianism, either.

However great the differences between them, early Judaism and late medievalism shared a similar hunch about how salvation works: God's mercy is not absent, but it is conditioned upon our obedience. Sanders's summary of early Judaism as "getting in by grace, staying in by obedience" parallels the medieval view that "first justification" through baptism is by grace alone while increase in grace and final justification depends on human cooperation. No one can be "saved by works," plain and simple, according to the medieval scheme of things, contrary to the popular but ill-informed polemics of many Protestants. For human works are never truly meritorious in and of themselves, and thus they are always insufficient to gain God's favor. Yet God has provided a covenant, say the later medieval theologians, in which he promises to accept as meritorious the believer's virtuous attitudes and actions. This softening of the strictness of the law at Sinai ("Do this and you shall live") is called "good news."

These medieval theologians developed a distinction between merit de condigno (strict merit), which no human being can attain after the fall, and merit de congruo (proportionate merit), which involves good works that God accepts as if they merit salvation. The common saying was this: "God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them." So while my works cannot earn salvation in the strictest sense, God will accept them as meritorious if, after all, I do my best. This is "getting in by grace, staying in by obedience;" and as such, it was precisely the view of salvation that the reformers attacked on biblical grounds. Galatians was a gold mine for such resistance.

Paul's letters-and specifically Galatians-show that Sanders and the "new perspective on Paul" are basically right in their identification of first-century Judaism as "covenantal nomism." But even if we grant that covenantal nomism rather than perfectionistic legalism was the broad consensus formula for first-century Judaism, it is precisely this that Paul opposes as the Galatian heresy: "O foolish Galatians! . . . Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by the hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Gal. 3:1-4). This confusion is substantially the same as the one the Protestant reformers faced. It crops up throughout church history whenever Scripture's clear distinctions between law and gospel, faithfulness and faith, get confused concerning the way we receive the inheritance promised to Abraham.

1 [ Back ] Michael Horton's citation of E. P. Sanders comes from Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977). For more recent exploration along these lines, but with some variations, see also James D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990); N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992); and What St. Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). The literature of the new perspective is vast and still growing.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, May 15th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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