Published on November 9, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Christian Focus, 2017 | 312 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books at a Glance

By Mark Baker


About the Author

Robert J. Cara is Provost, Chief Academic Officer and Hugh and Sallie Reaves Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, where he has been teaching since 1993. He is also an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.


About the Series

The Reformed, Exegetical and Doctrinal Studies series “presents new studies informed by rigorous exegetical attention to the biblical text, engagement with the history of doctrine, with a goal of refined dogmatic formulation” (15). Each volume of the series also brings in pastoral implications in order to combine theological rigor with pastoral insight in the tradition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.



Ever since E.P. Sanders’ release of Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress: 1977), Pauline scholarship has undergone a decisive shift in content and focus. While there were antecedents to Sanders’ work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism was the watershed release that introduced a radical new look at Paul and his theology. This “new look,” in its various forms, has come to be labeled the New Perspective on Paul (NPP).

One of the key components of the NPP is what Sanders calls “covenantal nomism”; namely, the view that Paul’s Jewish contemporaries did not struggle with approaching the Jewish law legalistically. Covenantal nomism implies that Paul was not arguing against legalism or “works righteousness” because Paul’s opponents did not hold such a view. Sixteenth century Roman Catholics were legalistic; 1st century Palestinian Jews were not. People who accept Sanders’ thesis often claim that Luther and his fellow Reformers were wrongly reading Roman Catholic problems into Paul’s letters; therefore, a correct reading of Paul demands a departure from the Reformational readings of Paul and a movement towards a reading of Paul that is heavily informed by Second Temple Judaism.

Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul seeks to challenge Sanders’ central claim, covenantal nomism. The formal thesis of the book is that “there are many examples of works righteousness (Pelagian and semi-Pelagian versions) in Second Temple Judaism literature and Sanders’ uniform covenantal nomism is mistaken” (198–9). The primary burden of the book is to look at the primary texts of Second Temple Judaism in order to evaluate and critique Sanders’ claim. The secondary thesis is that “the NPP is especially vulnerable in its explanations and/or avoidance of Eph 2:8–10, Titus 3:4–7, and 2 Tim 1:8–10” (199). These three texts from the so-called “disputed Pauline letters” provide a secondary critique of the NPP and are too often ignored or marginalized by NPP scholarship.


Table of Contents

1 Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul
2 Works Righteousness: Reformed and Covenantal-Nomism Frameworks
3 Works Righteousness in Jewish Literature?
4 Works Righteousness in ‘Deutero-Paul’?
5 Summary
Appendix: Overview of Judaism’s Literary Sources
Scripture Index
Subject Index
Extra-canonical Texts Index



Chapter 1: Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul

The NPP actually contains two new perspectives. The first is a new perspective on Second Temple Judaism and the second follows this foundation is the new perspective on Paul. The focus of this book is on the first of the two perspectives. These new perspectives can be summarized in five points:

  1. Based on Sanders’ system of covenantal nomism, Paul did not argue against works righteousness in his letters because Second Temple Judaism did not have a problem with works righteousness.
  2. The traditional Protestant view of justification is wrong because it has misunderstood Paul’s first century context.
  3. “Works of the Law” in Paul refers primarily to Jewish boundary markers such as circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance.
  4. Paul’s Gentile mission is the context for his teaching on justification.
  5. Initial justification for the believer is a recognition of covenant status and received by faith, and final justification is (at least partially) a recognition of Spirit-wrought good works (25).

While NPP scholars have varying degrees of emphasis, these five points stand as common ground, with Sanders’ work as the fountainhead for all five points.

Many books critique the NPP, but few engage with the details of Second Temple Judaism. The goal of this book is to engage with the first of the five points of the NPP, the claim that there is little or no works righteousness in Second Temple Judaism. This is Sanders’ thesis, and it is the foundation of the NPP; therefore, any attempt to “crack the foundation of the NPP” must focus here.

There are some who claim that there is not a monolithic “new perspective on Paul,” but rather many new perspectives on Paul. This claim is true, to an extent, because each NPP scholar has his own key emphasis. But there are enough points that are shared among NPP scholars that warrant a broad critique of NPP thought altogether. Besides Sanders, this book will also interact with James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright.

On a pastoral and practical level, it is important to be conversant with the NPP for several reasons. First, any scholar interacting with Romans, Galatians, or Philippians 3 will need to interact with the NPP. Second, pastors and church leaders will read commentaries that agree and disagree with the NPP at various levels and a general understanding of what is at stake will be helpful. Third, scholars such as Dunn and Wright are capable and helpful scholars and have beneficial insights on many topics, so knowing more about the NPP will help readers learn to eat the meat and spit out the bones when reading Dunn, Wright, and others.


Chapter 2: Works Righteousness: Reformed and Covenantal-Nomism Frameworks

Many NPP scholars fail to define “works righteousness,” and if they do, it is often too narrowly defined as merely Pelagianism not semi-Pelagianism. In contrast, works righteousness should be seen as any understanding of salvation that includes good works, in part or in whole, as the ground for justification by God (40). The key difference is that many Jewish writings exemplify semi-Pelagianism, meaning that works play a partial role in justification. Yet such instances often fly under the radar of NPP scholars because they are only looking for Pelagianism, where works alone are the basis for justification.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) provides a strong contrast for the NPP in terms of the law. The WCF explains that God made a Covenant of Works with Adam that demanded perfect obedience. The Covenant of Works is a covenant of works righteousness, and the final judgment on unbelievers is. . .

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Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism Versus Reformed Covenantal Theology

Christian Focus, 2017 | 312 pages

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