Paul and Justification (An Orthodox Perspective on the New Perspective on Paul)



By Seraphim Hamilton 

My big realization over the past two months has been that the New Perspective’s insights on Paul naturally lead to seeing Paul as a theologian centered on theosis. Due credit goes to Wright combined with Gorman. Plus a few of my own thoughts. So, the way it works is this:

1. The issue of justification always comes within the context of the identity of the people of God. As Wright has correctly noted, it’s about ecclesiology. Paul argues that justification is by faith instead of by works of the Torah. Works of the Torah means justification (assurance of a place in the world to come) through stringent practice of the sign commandments given to Israel. The sign commandments are commandments in the Torah that are given for the purpose of setting Israel apart as a distinct ethnic group. For Paul, their purpose has been completed, as Israel has been transformed into a transnational and transethnic family in the Messianic Age. Ask me more about this in the comment section, because this works very well for Galatians especially.

2. But what bothered me about many NPP ideas is that they never quite explained why it was that faith, for Paul, was so important. Why faith? Why not some other attitude or deed in contrast to the works of Torah? What I began to realize was that faith, for Paul, is important precisely because it embodies the faithfulness of the Messiah. I started moving in this direction several months ago, and my instincts were confirmed by Gorman’s book. A key tenet of most NPP authors is that what has traditionally been rendered “faith in Jesus Christ” should actually be rendered “faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” This rendering becomes extremely important for my view, as you will see below.

3. One of Wright’s most important arguments is that “righteousness of God”, for Paul, means “God’s faithfulness to His covenant purposes.” I resisted this at first, but eventually, I realized that it works perfectly in every single passage Paul uses the phrase in. With other understandings, you have to force the text at one place or another. When I read Hays earlier this year, my understanding was confirmed by his comments on Psalm 143. In Romans 3:20, Paul quotes Psalm 143. Interestingly, this same psalm uses the concept of “God’s righteousness” to refer to precisely what Wright says it does.

4. If you take 2-3 together, what you have in Romans 3 is a statement that the covenant faithfulness of God goes forward through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah for all who have faith. This goes back to what I said in point two. Philippians 2 paints Jesus’ faithfulness as a cruciform faithfulness, that is, a faithfulness that leads Him to love mankind by suffering and dying for them. This benefits all those who have faith precisely because our faith is an embodiment of his faithfulness. To die with Him means to rise with Him.

5. Then we need to understand that justification is offered as the solution to Romans 3:23. Human beings have sinned and therefore lack the glory of God. Ben Blackwell wrote a fantastic article on this phrase, concluding that for Paul, “glory of God” generally means the divine radiance of God which confers life on human beings. An Orthodox Christian would call it the divine energies. You can see this in Romans 8, where the whole creation is lifted to immortality through participation in the divine glory. You can also see it in 2 Corinthians 3, where the radiance of Moses’ face is referred to as the divine glory.

6. Then we need to understand what Jewish people in the first-century believed about Torah. I got this from Oskar Skarsaune. Jews generally believed that God had imprinted His Divine Wisdom (or Logos, or Sophia) on the Torah. For some of the philosophers, the universe was modeled according to an underlying logos. Hellenistic Jews adapted this and applied it to Torah. Then, for Paul, we understand that Jesus the Messiah is the embodiment of divine Wisdom. You can see this in many passages, especially 1 Corinthians 1-3. If we take these propositions together, we realize that for Paul, Christ is the embodiment of the Torah. This explains why Christ had the authority to lift the Sinai covenant to a higher level. Curious passages in Paul also begin to make sense:

(Romans 10:5-8)  For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);

Here, Paul takes a passage from Deuteronomy, where Moses was referring to Torah, and applies it to the personal Christ. Now, take everything above together:

7. For Paul, justification is about knowing in the present who will inherit the life of the world to come. For Paul, justification is not by works of Torah, that is, the ethnic identity markers given to Jewish people. Rather, it is by embodying the faithfulness of the Messiah. Why? Because by sharing in Messiah’s sufferings, we also share in His resurrection. What does that mean? It means that we share in the life-giving radiance or Glory of God. Why does that matter? Because it is this glory that animates the resurrected bodies of the just. This does not constitute an abandonment of Torah. Rather, it establishes the Torah, because the Torah is Incarnate in Jesus the Messiah. To share in the life of Jesus is to fulfill the Torah in the most perfect way. Sharing in the life of Jesus means that one is a member of the people of God, because Jesus, in taking the destiny of Israel on Himself (He fulfilled God’s through Israel for the world plan by His faithfulness), became Israel-in-person. Union with Israel-in-person means integration into the people of Israel. Look at how this works across a host of passages:

(Romans 3:21-31)  But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it– the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who are faithful. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and lack the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a mercy seat of faithfulness by His blood. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we establish the law.

(Romans 8:17)  and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

(Galatians 2:16-20)  yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, so we also have had faith in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Philippians 3:3-11)  For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh– though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

(2 Corinthians 4:7-12)  But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

One final thing should be discussed. What exactly is the “righteousness from God?” Many people have carelessly assumed that “righteousness from God” and “righteousness of God” are the same thing. In fact, they are not. “Righteousness of God”, as discussed above, refers to God’s covenant faithfulness, as accomplished through the Messiah.  But “righteousness from God” refers to something that we receive. Now, this final thesis, as far as I know, is unique to me, but I want people to give it a fair hearing. I suggest that we read this with the backdrop of some Jewish Adam literature floating around in Paul’s day. When we read that, we can understand how some Jews understood “righteousness.” This will also enable us to understand how Paul creatively applies Zechariah 3 to justification. The “Life of Adam and Eve” (arguably contemporary with Paul), has Eve saying:

“xx 1 And in that very hour my eyes were opened, and forthwith I knew that I was bare of the righteousness 2 with which I had been clothed (upon), and I wept and said to him: “Why hast thou 3 done this to me in that thou hast deprived me of the glory with which I was clothed””

As you can see, the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the Garden is explained by the deprivation of a clothing of divine glory or “righteousness.” We’ve already seen how Paul describes the glory of God as something restored in the Messiah. Through its restoration, we receive life in anticipation of our risen bodies. And, for Paul, this is a reversal of the problem which Adam introduced into the creation. This gives us reason to at least consider the possibility that Paul’s use of the phrase “righteousness from God” refers to a clothing of divine radiance which many Jews saw as something given to Adam before his exile from Paradise. This can help us explain Zechariah 3 as a backdrop for Romans 8.

(Zechariah 3:1-5)  Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.

3:8 identifies this as a sign of the coming Messianic Age. Joshua stands before the Judgment Seat of the Angel of the Lord, and Satan stands to accuse. The Angel (identified with yet distinguished from the Lord) proclaims God’s irrevocable election of Israel and clothes Joshua with a garment of divine radiance. Through this clothing, Joshua is vindicated and Satan is defeated. See how Paul applies this in Romans 8. Satan “bringing a charge” against Jerusalem is replaced with the intercession of Jesus. “Who can bring a charge”, Paul says, “against God’s chosen?” And this is all set in the context of a forensic judgment, where God “justifies” the sinner. If we take the Adam texts together with Paul’s understanding of Zechariah 3 (remember that in Romans 8, the focus is the participation of all creation, through humanity, in the divine glory) we can see a connection.

For Paul, justification is neither exclusively forensic nor exclusively transformative. It is both, because the context of justification is Zechariah 3. Mankind is robed in the robe of divine righteousness that Adam had forfeited. Through this theosis-event, Satan is defeated and the human being is vindicated before the Judgment Seat. So justification is a transformation which brings about a status, a status which anticipates final glorification and its associated “in the right” verdict at the Last Judgment. This harmonizes texts like 1 Corinthians 6:11 (where justification is clearly transformative) with texts like Romans 8:33 (which is clearly forensic, yet in the context of a transformative event.) This is why we cannot reduce “justified” to “declared righteous” or “made righteous.” Justification is its own concept, with its own particular nuance.


About Joel

Joel is a 32 year old currently residing in the southeastern United States. His interests lay in philosophy and theology. He is a writer for The Christian Watershed.

One thought on “Paul and Justification (An Orthodox Perspective on the New Perspective on Paul)

  1. Reblogged this on Eclectic Orthodoxy and commented:
    Given that I am ruminating on Romans at the present, I thought it would be appropriate, helpful, and timely to reblog this article on Paul and justification. The author is advancing an interpretation of justification that is close to my own thoughts on the matter, plus he has some very interesting things to say at the end of the article on Zechariah 3. In the article he mentions a book by Michael Gorman: Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. I have just finished reading this fine book will be blogging on it in the (hopefully) near future.

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