Last time I introduced the idea that Luther misread his Bible. He thought he saw in the Judaism of Paul’s day a reflection of ideas from his own time. He thought of 2nd Temple Jews as legalistic Catholics from his time period. He did not understand either the Judaism of his own day or the Judaism of Paul’s time.
I have done a number of articles called “Fantasy vs. Reality.” In each case I am addressing a common misunderstanding and contrasting it with solid evidence for what was really going on. In this case, Luther’s reading was the fantasy. The reality is supplied by reading 2nd Temple Jewish literature and finding out what they actually believed. E.P. Sanders has done this quite well and his reading is widely accepted. Some dispute Sanders’ reading, but other major scholars like N.T. Wright and W.S. Campbell accept his work as the definitive reading of Judaism in Paul’s time.
Did the Jews of Paul’s day believe that they needed to keep Torah perfectly to earn a place in God’s kingdom? Were they working to build up merit?
Not exactly. First, they didn’t think so much about individual salvation. They thought about having a place in God’s covenant people. God would save his covenant people as a whole. Therefore, they didn’t worry so much about doing something to make themselves stand out in God’s mind as someone worthy of saving. They simply wanted to be counted in with Israel.
Second, they did not imagine that the standard was either perfection or even some rigorous program of Torah observance. The standard was not so difficult in their minds. They believed that all who followed the basic prescriptions of Torah (circumcision, Sabbath, etc.) were including themselves in Israel and this being saved along with all Israel.
Sanders calls this view covenantal nomism. It is the idea that God chose Israel by grace and that individuals can be included in that grace by belonging to Israel. They were in the covenant by grace (just being born a Jew) and they stayed in the covenant by obeying the Torah (that is what he means by nomism, with nomos meaning law). Obeying the Torah here does not mean perfect obedience that is so good you earn salvation by being perfect. Nor does obeying Torah imply that sins cancel a person’s place in God’s salvation. Second Temple Judaism firmly believed in God’s forgiveness. Torah obedience meant keeping the identity markers of Israel, like circumcision and Sabbath, in order to belong to the covenant people.
There were three main platforms to this Judaistic view of God’s plan for salvation:
1. The election or choosing of Israel by grace.
2. The gift of the Torah and Israel’s obligation to follow it.
3. Reward and punishment in this world and in the World to Come.
Luther’s opponents nullified grace. They encouraged a system of merit. By contrast, Paul’s colleagues in Judaism believed firmly in grace. This is what many modern readers of the New Testament fail to understand.
So, am I saying that the Judaism of Paul’s day had it right?
No, I am not. The Judaism of Paul’s day was prone to an error of presumption. I think the same error plagues modern Christendom. We presume that our ongoing relationship with God is not crucial believing that we have already arrived.
I think the best critique I have seen of covenantal nomism came from John the Baptizer. Addressing a group of Pharisees who came to judge whether John’s preaching was valid or not, John said to them:
And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. –Matthew 3:9-11
In other words, John told them God’s standard was a little higher than they imagined. They did not have automatic salvation by belonging to Israel. That is why John came preaching repentance. It wasn’t the identity markers of Israel (circumcision, Sabbath, temple) that saved them. They needed to actually walk with God, living under his kingship.
I would call the view of Paul and the apostles COVENANT FIDEISM, being in the covenant by faith in the God who made the covenant and living out the covenant by faith. Covenant keeping without faith is an empty thing.
The way people enter God’s covenant is by believing in it and the God who made it. To stay in the covenant requires a life of continuing faith.
You might ask, “Well, didn’t those religious leaders who approached John have such faith? After all, they believed in God enough to keep his Torah.”
I believe John would respond by saying that their faith was in the wrong object. Their faith was in their own status as Jews rather than in God’s promises and calling.
How can I say that their faith was deficient? How can I say that their faith was lacking?
I can say that because when God came to lead his people those leaders who confronted John did not follow. They believed they had already received it. They had it already. They didn’t need to follow any prophet calling for repentance. They believed they were right already.
They were not responsive to God’s new call. Therefore, their faith, though allegedly in God’s covenant, was really in their own worthiness.
When Paul speaks in Romans 3:21 about a righteousness of God manifested not by works of Torah, this is what he means. He means a righteousness that is not based on status, but in ongoing faith and responsiveness to God.
The fantasy of Luther is that Jews were like legalistic Catholics, that they were like the followers of Pelagius in the days of Augustine. He erroneously imagined that Paul’s words were in opposition to legalism: a system of self-merit. This led Luther to distort the balance of Law and Grace. Evangelical Christians are still plagued with this problem. In contemporary evangelicalism, there is a struggle to find any reason at all to do good works or to be obedient. Salvation is so divorced from good works and obedience that contemporary Christians often fail to attain to them. After all, why worry about goodness when God has already declared you perfect.
Oops! That sounds like the very Jewish leaders John the Baptizer repudiated. Ironic isn’t it. The sin of presumption is still around. Paul would be against modern Christian presumption every bit as much as ancient Jewish presumption.
The reality is that Paul’s message and the message of the New Testament is a call for people to believe in and be responsive to God. It does involve obedience to commandments. It does mean more than mental assent to a belief. It’s a covenant, not a get-out-of-hell free card. And covenant means an ongoing life of faith and faithfulness.