The New Perspective on Paul – Part 2

Today we continue in our series on the NPP. Here is the second basic premise I see within the movement:

Justification by faith is not central to Paul’s thought; it only arises in the context of the Gentile mission and is concerned with membership in the people of God.

In one sense this claim is not original to the NPP; one can go back as far as Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) for the claim that justification is a “subsidiary crater” on the rim of the main crater, which for Schweitzer was union with Christ. But the rise of the NPP has resulted in a revival of prioritizing of participation with Christ language over the traditional forensic understanding of justification. The downplaying of justification is accomplished further by noting that Paul stresses the doctrine only in Romans and Galatians. In both cases it is connected to the inclusion of the Gentiles within the people of God, leading many NPP to conclude that the primary emphasis of justification is determining who the people of God are and what marks them off from those who are not the people of God.

To summarize: justification is primarily horizontal rather than vertical, sociological rather than theological, corporate rather than individual.

Evaluation:

1. The NPP has helpfully corrected what at at times has been a neglect of the corporate and horizontal aspects of justification among some strands of traditional Reformed understandings. This has provoked an appropriate nuancing of justification to capture its fuller ramifications.

2. But as is often the case, in its effort to “correct” a traditional understanding of justification the NPP has swung too far in the other direction. Granted that justification has horizontal and corporate aspects, the question must still be asked as to which of these are primary. I remain persuaded that justification is first and foremost an issue of an individual’s standing before God in his court of law. From that foundation there are of course ramifications for how believers relate to one another and how we determine who the people of God are today, but they are just that: ramifications.

3. At its best those who uphold the traditional view of justification have recognized the importance of both forensic (justification) and participatory (union with Christ) categories in Paul’s thought. The solution to a perceived over-emphasis on forensic categories is not to re-define or diminish the forensic but to discuss the relationship b/w forensic and participatory categories in Paul’s thought.

4. The fact that Paul does not spend significant space outside of Galatians and Romans does not automatically mean it is not central to his thought. We must recall that Paul wrote occasional letters oriented towards specific situations. In those situations where justification was not a pressing issue, it should not be surprising it is not mentioned. Additionally, if a key purpose of Romans is for Paul to introduce himself and his gospel message to a church he did not plant in hopes of enlisting their help with future ministry in Spain, the fact that he spends significant time talking about justification indicates its importance in his thought.

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