Covenantal Nomism and New Testament Soteriology

Covenantal Nomism and New Testament Soteriology

Alexander Kai-sun MAK

This article evaluates the understanding of Sanders and of Dunn on the topic of covenantal nomism and their application of this concept to interpreting Paul's soteriology. The article is divided into two parts.

It begins with an evaluation of Sanders' concept of covenantal nomism. Sanders' evaluation shows that scholarly consensus is lacking on the following two issues: (a) was covenantal nomism the common denominator of first-century Palestinian Judaism? (b) was first- century Palestinian Judaism a religion of works-righteousness? The writer provides evidence to show that scholars of different camps, whether Jewish, liberal or conservative Protestants, all operate under very different presuppositions or assumptions when interpreting Paul through the use of Jewish texts. Subsequently, based on their different assumptions, they would certainly produce different results. The writer has argued for the legitimacy of the following presuppositions or assumptions, which not all scholars adopt: (a) the content of the Bible is reliable; (b) its messages are not contradictory; and (c) greater emphasis should be placed on the New Testament instead of Jewish literature (which is more distant from Paul both in terms of time and content) as the primary source in formulating Paul's soteriology.

On the basis of these assumptions, the writer then explores themes that are emphasized in covenantal nomism from the perspective of the New Testament. These themes include: grace/mercy, faith deeds and final judgment. The conclusion is that Jews and Jewish leaders whom Jesus criticized did not understand the grace/mercy of God. Rather, evidence in the New Testament shows that some Jews were claiming that good deeds (or obedience) could earn the grace and blessing of God. This is, however, contrary to the teaching of the New Testament. The New Testament teaches that the grace/mercy of God is the pre-condition of good deeds and obedience, and the latter should be understood as evidence of the former. As such, there is no tension between God's grace and human obedience (so Dunn). The research results do not support the NPP of Sanders and Dunn. Finally, what Jesus and Paul were against were not necessarily principles of Judaism, but that the Jews were not practising what they preached.

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