Is ‘covenantal nomism’ Protestant?

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One of the interesting developments in Pauline scholarship over the past few decades has been the rise of what has been called the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ (NP). The NP has had a number of benefits, namely its call to take the Jewishness of scripture seriously, as well as unpacking what salvation entails more broadly, without reducing salvation to forensic justification. The main point of contention, however, focuses on the doctrine of justification that many advocates of NP put in the place of traditional Protestant accounts.

E. P. Sanders, who was the primary catalyst for NP exegesis, characterizes the soteriology that results as ‘covenantal nomism’. By that he means that the new covenant is continuous with the old one in significant respects to the extent that one enters into the new covenant that Jesus Christ has made by his blood, through faith, (as such the people of God is a multi-ethnic community) but remains in by works.

N. T. Wright puts it this way, “Finally, as is already clear from the above, this lawcourt verdict, implementing God’s covenant plan, and all based on Jesus Christ himself, is announced both in the present, with the verdict issued on the basis of faith and faith alone, and also in the future, on the day when God raises from the dead all those who are already indwelt by the spirit. The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.” (Justification, Wright, 223).

Clearly, the NP doesn’t get rid of the idea of justification as a forensic judgement or pronouncement of acquittal or pardon. Wright is adamant that the language of justification is legal in this sense. As such both him and Dunn are quite happy to say that they are in fundamental continuity with the insights of the Reformers.

“As Dunn aptly notes, the “Judaism of what Sanders christened as ‘covenantal nomism’ can now be seen to preach good Protestant doctrine: that grace is always prior; that human effort is ever the response to divine initiative; that good works are the fruit and not the root of salvation.” (12-13).

Wright adds, “Everything Luther and Calvin wanted to achieve is within this glorious Pauline framework of thought.” (Wright, 224).

And yet, I’m not convinced that covenantal nomism is adequately continuous with the fundamental concerns and contours of Reformed theology. As to the scriptural faithfulness of covenantal nomism, I’ll leave that to the exegetes. But in terms of systematic theology I think a number of discontinuities are readily apparant. This can be helpfully drawn out by Alister McGrath’s summary of the key elements of Protestant theologies of justification.

“McGrath has helpfully noted three points that distinguish the mature Protestant doctrine of justification: (1) Justification involves a forensic declaration of righteousness that effects a change in legal status before God, as opposed to a process that actually makes one righteous. (2) There is a clear conceptual difference between justification (“the act by which God declares the sinner to be righteous”) and either regeneration or sanctification (the actual “internal process of renewal by the Holy Spirit”). (3) Justifying righteousness is understood as an external, “alien” righteousness, graciously imputed to the Christian through the act of faith. ” (Justification Five Views, 25).

So how does covenantal nomism measure up? Well, both Dunn and Wright are quite happy to agree that justification involves a forensic declaration. But we begin to meet discontinuity with both (2) and (3). The regenerative work of the Spirit is clearly integral for Wright in the final justification of the sinner, which will be on the basis of the whole life lived in the power of the Spirit. And as a result of the denial of (2) this also entails a denial of (3). If final justification is to some extent dependent on my inherent righteousness produced by the Spirit (even though it is produced by grace), then justifying righteousness cannot be wholly external. So two of the essential features of a mature Protestant theology of justification are denied by covenantal nomism. Additionally, given the recent work of John Barclay in Paul and the Gift it is clear that the priority of grace isn’t the only dimension of grace that needs to be taken into account when searching for a Protestant theology of justification. Things like non-circularity, superabundance, and gratuity, need to be taken into account as well.

So while N. T. Wright might be ‘Protestant’ in affirming the forensic nature of justification as a result of non-imputation (as per Wesley), he begins to be on much more fragile ground in providing a doctrine of justification that also requires the inherent righteousness of the believer produced by the Spirit. This is slightly odd because early on in his response to John Piper in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, Wright states,

“‘Righteousness’, within the lawcourt setting – and this is something that no good Lutheran or Reformed theologian ought ever to object to – denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favour. Notice, it does not denote, within that all important lawcourt context, ‘the moral character they are then assumed to have’, or ‘the moral behaviour they have demonstrated which has earned them the verdict’.” (Wright, Justification, 69).

And yet, as we have seen, the final verdict of justification will be on the basis of a moral character that they have, which we immediately add, is produced by the Spirit. So in actual fact, according to Wright, justification does depend on the inherent righteousness produced in the believer by the Spirit, not simply pardon alone. At this point, it is clear that there is a rather glaring tension in Wright’s system. Is justification on the basis of pardon alone or does it also require a positive righteousness (either inherent or external) of the believer? It can’t be both. If we opt for the former then we can happily join the likes of John Wesley and others. If we opt for the latter without affirming that righteousness as alien or external to us, then we join the great swathe of Catholic theologians from Augustine to the present.

On the other hand, if we opt for a traditional Reformed understanding of justification as entailing both the imputation of our sins to Christ, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us then we can continue to maintain that justification has been achieved in Christ as both pardon and the positive attribution of Christ’s righteousness to us. We are pronounced righteous on the alien or external righteousness of Christ in addition to the pardon that he achieves for us by the cross.

So is covenantal nomism Protestant? It is to the extent that it argues for justification as a forensic declaration, and inasmuch as a number of Protestants follow E. P. Sanders’ exegetical maneuvers. But it isn’t Protestant in terms of its rejection of two fundamental features of traditional Protestant justification theory.

 

 

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