During my reading for preliminary exams (generally a frustrating exercise, given that I was forced to read lots of infuriating scholarship without the ability to respond to it anytime soon), one mistake came up surprisingly often in the literature: Pauline scholars—who of all people should know better—referencing the “Pauline” doctrine of “salvation/justification by faith alone.” Yikes. It’s no wonder laypeople are so consistently misinformed on this point if scholars focusing on Paul regularly make this mistake themselves.
I was especially surprised to see someone of the stature of Jimmy Dunn making this mistake throughout the collection of his essays in The New Perspective on Paul. Obviously Dunn is a tremendous scholar, but it is a mystery to me how he can make statements like this:
Putting the point from Paul’s perspective, Paul was clear that justification is by faith alone: to regard any ‘works of the law’ as essential (in addition to faith) undermines ‘faith alone’. The gospel principle is clear: ‘no one is justified by works of the law, but only (ean mē) through faith in Jesus Christ’ (Gal. 2.16). [p. 25]
Apparently in the absence of Paul every saying “faith alone,” one must try to stretch ἐὰν μή to mean “only” (and only “only”). Unfortunately, that isn’t what it typically means in phrases like this, instead meaning something like “unless” or “without,” resulting in “a person is not justified by works of the law unless through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” (I suppose this is worth a later post.) More Dunn:
The thought of earning ‘the election of grace’ by the ‘works’ (to be subsequently) performed by the elect people is far from the thought. The challenge to Paul’s mission was rather that those who accept the gospel and receive the Spirit ought therefore to do the works of the covenant’s law, and that failure to do these works amounts to a refusal to accept the terms of God’s covenanted favour. That is what was at issue, and that is what Paul denied: God’s acceptance was by grace through faith alone. [p.51]
No. A thousand times no! Paul’s argument is that the old covenant had achieved its purpose and was fulfilled when Christ fulfilled its curses in his own person. Paul protested a going back to the old covenant, back to the flesh, once the new (the Spirit) had come. Paul was not arguing against covenantal nomism, which he upholds (as even Ed Sanders admits with respect to 1 & 2 Corinthians).
The primary question was whether these works were obligatory (also) for Gentile believers. Paul’s response had been clear: only faith was necessary; to require works of the law in addition to faith was to subvert the gospel of justification by faith alone (Rom. 3.28; 9.30-32; Gal. 2.15-16). Here the thought seems to have broadened out to refer to human effort in general as inadequate to the demands of salvation; salvation could be accomplished only by grace alone through faith alone. [p. 56]
So let me get this straight: Paul’s answer was something he never says?
But if, on the other hand, Paul is entirely serious, on the ground that ‘everyone who does good’ refers only to the Christians, then Paul’s theology of justification by faith alone has to be qualified as final justification by faith and by works accomplished by the believer in the power of the Spirit. If Paul is thus vulnerable to such a charge being levied against him, despite his insistence elsewhere that justification is by faith alone and entirely on the basis of grace, then at the very least the charges brought against Judaism’s ‘covenantal nomism’ should be a good deal less fault-finding. [pp. 87–88]
Argh. This whole section is invalidated by the problem that Paul never upheld a “theology of justification by faith alone,” nor did Paul bring charges against “Judaism’s ‘covenantal nomism’.”
The most frustrating thing about this is that I found so much of value in this volume (and others like it), only for everything to get dashed on the rocks of “faith alone.” Precision is so important in exegesis, and if we’re to do honest exegesis of Paul that isn’t simply an apologetic for the Paul of the Reformers, we should really insist that we start with what Paul actually says rather than what other interpreters have said he said. This requires that we drop “faith alone” when discussing Paul, since Paul does not ever use this phrase. It is perfectly fine to use this term when discussing Reformation theology, but it is out of place in a historical examination of the Apostle himself (except perhaps to point out that he never makes use of the phrase).