Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Grace and Judgment in the New Perspective

Sanders writes, “Salvation is by grace but judgment is according to works; works are the condition of remaining ‘in,’ but they do not earn salvation” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 543). Sander's statement above sounds catholic. I've even used it--ignorant of Sanders--to describe Augustine's soteriology. But does the New Perspective construal of grace within Palestinian Judaism even qualify as Christian--whether Protestant or Catholic? I suspect not.

From what I can tell, the grace of Sander's Palestinian Judaism knows nothing of ontological renewal. Instead, the concept of grace within Sander’s first-century Judaism is closely linked to Israel’s corporate election, which according to Sanders is itself an act of grace (even though he acknowledges that many Rabbis based Israel’s election upon the merit of the patriarchs, Israel’s foreseen obedience, etc. No matter; the fact remains that first century Jews did not merit election through personal obedience). While I suspect there is more to Sander’s conception of grace, from all that I’ve read, the grace of Sander’s first-century Judaism does not involve spiritual regeneration or ontological renewal. One simply adheres to the Law through the proper use of one’s will. The good works then, that are rewarded at the judgment, are works that have been self-wrought. This wont do. Even Pelagius maintained the existence of this kind of “grace” (see Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter, ch. 14). For Pelagius, grace was extrinsic and natural. It consisted in the Law (which enlightened the mind and told the believer what to do), the intellect (which enabled the human being to overcome fleshly desires), the free will (which enabled one to choose the right) and baptism (which secured the forgiveness of past sins). For Pelagius, the good works that were rewarded at the judgment were not the fruit of ontological grace; they were the product of a person's proper use of his natural capacities. The "grace" of Sander's first-century Judaism seems little different--another verse from the same song.

The Christian doctrine of grace includes ontological renewal, precisely because the Christian doctrine of sin includes ontological corruption. We do not simply “choose” to engage in the good deeds that God rewards at the judgment; God enables them by a supernatural act of ontological renewal. Good deeds are good precisely because they have been wrought in God, through his renewing grace. Judgment by works without ontological grace is Pelagianism.

Typically, traditional interpreters of Paul dismiss Sander's formula of "salvation by grace, judgment by works" as being too generous toward first-century Judaism. But what if Sanders is right? Is the traditional interpretation of Paul threatened? I don't believe so. Sanders articulation of grace and judgment within Palestinian Judaism has strong Pelagian overtones—the very thing that he insists doesn’t exist in Palestinian Judaism.


incognito said...

Hi, I just Googled across your post. If I may be so bold as to comment, I think Sanders only had part of it right. I believe "salvation" in the bible typically refers to salvation in this life, from the harm of sin now, rather than simply being saved from hell in the afterlife. Thus, God and his agents graciously save us from the harm of sin in this life, and show us and help us to live righteously, thus giving us a favourable final judgement also. The Pelegian overtones exist when people's need to be saved from sin is not recognised.

Cyrus said...

In the New Perspective take on Second Temple Judaism, grace does not end with Israel's corporate election and the gift of Torah. While keeping Torah is Israel's proper response to God's grace, no one keeps it perfectly, and God's grace continues with the forgiveness of sins.

When Paul criticizes the Law, opposing it to the Spirit, the Law's shortcoming is not that there is no forgiveness under the Law, as though the Law could forbid God from being merciful. The Law's shortcoming is that it cannot regenerate a person. The best I can hope for under the Law is that my sins will be few, and that God will forgive them. The least I can hope for with the Spirit is renovation of the heart.

Gerald said...


I agree with your comments here. The point of the post was to argue that the Second Temple conception of grace is not Pauline. (Perhaps the Pelagian insult was not helpful.)

Paul's soteriology includes ontological renewal. I would even argue further that the "legitimate" OT understanding of God's righteousness and grace--perhaps what one sees in John the Baptist and Zack and Lizzy--also falls short of NT/Pauline soteriology, for the exact reason you mention in your second paragraph. The deficiency of the Law is that it cannot make alive, not primarily that it can't be kept.