The New Perspective on Paul The Contribution of James D. G. Dunn

Among advocates of a new view of the teaching of the apostle Paul, James D. G. Dunn is a figure of considerable prominence. Though Dunn, as we shall see, is not fully satisfied with E. P. Sanders’ treatment of the apostle Paul, he acknowledges his indebtedness to Sanders’ insights and writes as an articulate spokesman for the new perspective. As the author of a number of substantial volumes on the apostle Paul1, Dunn, who is the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham, England, has contributed significantly to the advancement of the new perspective and has influenced another important writer whom we will consider in a subsequent article, N.T. Wright. Consequently, our summary of the development and articulation of the new perspective on Paul requires that we consider Dunn’s contribution.

Basic Agreement with Sander’s View of Judaism

The starting point for Dunn’s contribution to the new perspective on Paul is his fundamental agreement with Sanders’ assessment of Second Temple Judaism. In a 1982 lecture, “The New Perspective on Paul,” Dunn acknowledges that Sanders’ study, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, represents a “new pattern” of understanding the apostle Paul. This pattern of understanding, though significantly different than the Reformation’s view of Paul, has “broken the mold” of traditional Pauline studies and established a new point of departure for future studies. In this lecture, Dunn credits Sanders with breaking the stranglehold of the older Reformation view that had dominated Pauline studies for centuries. So far as Dunn is concerned, any future assessment of Paul’s teaching will have to reckon with Sanders’ conclusions.

According to Dunn, Sanders’ chief point is that the “picture of Judaism drawn from Paul’s writings is historically false.”2 The idea that there is a basic antithesis between Judaism, which supposedly taught a doctrine of salvation by meritorious works of obedience to the law of God, and Paul, who taught a doctrine of salvation by faith apart from the works of the law, needs to be set aside once for all. This idea does not fit with what can be known of Second Temple Judaism through the proper use of historical sources. Judaism, as Sanders has convincingly demonstrated, was a religion of salvation that emphasized God’s goodness and generosity toward his people, Israel. Far from teaching salvation by meritorious works, Judaism taught that God graciously elected his people in his love and mercy. To use Sanders’ language, Judaism taught that one “gets in” the covenant community by God’s gracious initiative and “remains in” by obeying the law of the covenant. Therefore, Judaism is a not a legalistic religion, which teaches that salvation comes through obedience to the law. Rather, it begins with God’s grace and the provisions of his mercy. The law was given to Israel, not as a means for procuring favor with God, but as a means to uphold and confirm the covenant relationship previously established by grace. Dunn fully concurs with Sanders’ argument that Judaism’s pattern of religion was that of covenantal nomism: God’s graciously elect people, Israel, were obliged to obey the requirements of the law (Torah), not as a way of obtaining favor with God but only as a way of preserving the covenant relationship first initiated by grace.

Because he largely agrees with Sanders’ interpretation of the religion of Judaism, Dunn also shares Sanders’ rejection of the Reformation reading of the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of justification. The Reformation approached Paul’s teaching on justification from the standpoint of its opposition to the legalism of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. In the struggle of Luther and others to obtain assurance of God’s favor and mercy, particularly in the face of the Catholic teaching of the necessity of meritorious good works, the Reformers read the apostle Paul’s indictment of the Judaizers through the lens of their own struggles with Catholicism. Thus, the legalism represented by the medieval Catholic teaching of meritorious good works was thought to be an error similar to that of the Judaizers, who allegedly taught salvation by the merits of our obedience to the law. This Reformation reading of the apostle Paul is a fundamental misreading. Judaism at the time of Paul’s writing did not teach that obedience to the law of God was a means of obtaining favor with God. Therefore, whatever the error of the Judaizers to which Paul responds in his epistles (especially Galatians and Romans), it could not be the kind of legalism that characterized medieval teaching on justification. No such legalism was present in the Judaism of Paul’s day.

Thus, Dunn maintains that a new reading of the apostle Paul is required, one which acknowledges the basic correctness of Sanders’ insights into the nature of Second Temple Judaism. This means that whatever erroneous teaching about the law that Paul opposes in his writings, it cannot be the kind of legalism that the Reformation opposed. The doctrine of justification, which plays such an important role in the apostle Paul’s argument with some of his contemporaries, was not developed as an antidote to Judaistic legalism.3 Paul’s doctrine of justification must be reconsidered in the light of what we now know about Judaism.

Sander’s Failure to Understand Paul’s View of the Law

Despite Dunn’s general agreement with Sanders’ understanding of Judaism, he differs with Sanders in his understanding of Paul’s relation to Judaism in general, and in his understanding of justification in relation to the law of God in particular. Dunn finds fault with Sanders’ understanding of the apostle Paul, particularly with his sharp distinction between Paul’s understanding of the Christian faith and the religion of Judaism. Rather than attempting to interpret Paul’s teaching in relation to the “covenantal nomism” of Judaism, Sanders represents Paul as making a clean break with Judaism.

The system or pattern of religion that Paul articulated requires faith in the crucified and risen Christ as the means of gaining entrance into covenant with God. Contrary to the religion of Judaism, which continues to uphold the law of God and insist upon its abiding validity, Paul draws a radical contrast between faith in Christ and the law. In Paul’s understanding of the gospel, Judaism and the law must be abandoned in favor of the Christian religion. Consequently, despite Sanders’ rehabilitation of Judaism as a religion of grace and not of legalistic obedience to the law, he still treats Paul’s newfound faith as though it required a wholesale abandonment of Judaism with its positive evaluation of the law of God.

He [Sanders] still speaks of Paul breaking with the law, he still has Paul making an arbitrary jump from one system to another and posing an antithesis between faith in Christ and his Jewish heritage in such sharp, black-and-white terms, that Paul’s occasional defence of Jewish prerogative (as in Romans 9:46) seems equally arbitrary and bewildering, his treatment of the law and of its place in God’s purpose becomes inconsistent and illogical, and we are left with an abrupt discontinuity between the new movement centered in Jesus and the religion of Israel which makes little sense in particular of Paul’s olive tree allegory in Romans 11.4

In spite of Sanders’ groundbreaking insight into the nature of Judaism, he fails, according to Dunn, to provide a coherent or convincing explanation of Paul’s relation to Judaism and its view of the law of God. Sanders leaves his readers with the impression that Paul rejected Judaism entirely, and embraced an understanding of the Christian faith that was largely disconnected from his Jewish past. In this respect, Dunn believes that Sanders fails to do for the interpretation of Paul what he does so masterfully for the interpretation of Judaism: he fails to interpret Paul within the context of first century Judaism. Particularly perplexing in Sanders’ understanding of Paul is his suggestion that Paul repudiated the law of God altogether, as though it were wholly antithetical to the gospel of Christ. But, if within Judaism itself the law was never understood to be a means of meriting favor with God, why would Paul find it necessary to reject Judaism’s view of the law in order to emphasize God’s grace in Christ? Was Paul rejecting the law as such, when he contrasts the works of the law with faith in Christ? These questions are left unresolved by Sanders and lead Dunn to take a closer look at Paul’s teaching on the law in relation to justification. Sanders’ assessment of Judaism raises, but fails to answer, the question: how does the new view of Judaism contribute to a new perspective on Paul?

“The new perspective on Paul,” by forcing a reassessment of what Paul was reacting against [the Judaism of his day], has given fresh impetus to this line of inquiry. What was at issue between Paul and “those of the circumcision”? Can we continue to speak in terms of Jewish boasting in self-achieved merit? What is about “works of the law” to which Paul objects this strenuously?5

Though Sanders has provided the basis for a new perspective on Paul, his own interpretation of Paul’s gospel fails to show how Paul’s view of the law arises within the context of the Judaism of his day. Or, to put the matter a bit differently, if the problem with Judaism’s understanding of the law was not legalism, which teaches that obedience to the law’s requirements is the basis for inclusion among God’s covenant people, what was wrong with its teaching? To what error is the apostle Paul responding, when he speaks of a justification that is not according to “works of the law” but according to faith?

The ‘Works of the Law’ as ‘Boundary Markers’

If we approach the apostle Paul from the perspective of the new view of Judaism, we will discover, Dunn argues, that Paul was objecting to Jewish exclusivism and not legalism. The problem with the use of the law among the Judaizers whom Paul opposes was not their attempt to find favor with God on the basis of their obedience to the law, but their use of the “works of the law” to exclude Gentiles from membership in the covenant community. The problem with the Judaizers is that they were emphasizing certain “works of the law” that served as “boundary markers” for inclusion or exclusion from the number of God’s people. The law functioned in the thinking and practice of these Judaizers as a means of identifying who properly belongs to the community of faith. It was this social use of the law as a means of excluding Gentiles that receives Paul’s rebuke, not an alleged appeal to the law as a means of self-justification.

According to Dunn, Paul’s real objection to the Judaizers’ appeal to “works of the law” is clearly disclosed in passages like Galatians 2:15–16 and Galatians 3:10–14. A brief review of Dunn’s treatment of these passages will suffice to illustrate the shape of his argument.



Galatians 2:15–16

In Galatians 2:15–16, the apostle Paul writes: “We are Jews by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.”

When we read this passage in the historical context of the Judaism of Paul’s day, Dunn maintains that several things will become clear:

  1. The apostle Paul is speaking in language that was typical to Jewish Christians (“we who are Jews by nature”). This language reflects an understanding of what it means to belong to the covenant community and thereby to be separated from Gentile sinners. The particular focus of these verses is upon the question of who belongs to God’s covenant people and who does not.
  2. Because Paul is speaking from within the context of a common Jewish framework of understanding, his concept of righteousness and what it is to “be justified” are likewise “thoroughly Jewish.”6 To be justified means, in this context, to be acknowledged by God as a member of his covenant people. God’s righteousness in justifying his people is his covenant faithfulness expressed by way of his gracious and merciful “verdict in favour of Israel on grounds of his covenant with Israel.”7 Justification is not a exclusively initiatory act (as Sanders tends to argue) whereby God introduces someone into the covenant community. Rather, as in the Judaism with which Paul was undoubtedly familiar, it is God’s gracious “acknowledgment that someone is in the covenant.” This understanding of justification—indeed the teaching of “justification by faith” itself—was common to the Judaism of Paul’s day and to the teaching of Paul. If we read the apostle Paul’s language in this passage within the historical setting of Judaism, we will not conclude that he is introducing a new doctrine of justification, or that he opposing a Jewish teaching that we can earn our acquittal with God on the basis of “meritorious works.” Such a reading of the apostle Paul is incompatible with what we know about Judaism, which also emphasized the grace and covenant faithfulness of God in acknowledging those who are his people.
  3. This leads Dunn to identify the crux of the issue in Galatians 2:15–16. When Paul attacks the idea of being justified by “the works of the law,” he is attacking those observances required in the law that served to distinguish the Jews from the Gentiles. The “works of the law” is a phrase that refers, not to all the observances required in the law of God, but to those “particular observances” that “functioned as identity markers . . . to identify their practicioners as Jewish in the eyes of the wider public.”8 These observances—such as circumcision, food laws, and feast-days—“were the peculiar rites which marked out the Jews as that peculiar people.” The “works of the law,” therefore, are those “badges of covenant membership” that served to separate the true covenant people, the Jews, from those who were outside of the covenant, the Gentiles. Upon the basis of these considerations, Dunn concludes that Galatians 2:15-16 does not present an attack upon Judaism or its “covenantal nomism.” Paul was not opposing an allegedly legalistic teaching that obedience to the law of God in general is the basis for finding favor with God. Rather, Paul was opposing the idea that the “works of the law,” that is, those observances that particularly distinguish Jews from Gentiles, are necessary badges of covenant membership. The gospel, according to Paul, teaches that faith in Christ is the chief badge of covenant membership. What Paul objects to are the “works of the law,” that is, those ritual markers of identity that separated Jews from Gentiles. This does not mean, however, that Paul is disparaging the law or law-keeping in general. Paul only takes exception to the law “as a Jewish prerogative and national monopoly.”9 He does not take exception to the law when it is understood in terms of its more basic command to love your neighbor as yourself (Galatians 5:14).

Galatians 3:10-14

Dunn also appeals to Galatians 3:10–14 to illustrate his interpretation of Paul’s understanding of the law. While admitting that any interpretation of Paul’s writings must also consider his other epistles, especially the epistle to the Romans, Dunn believes that this passage confirms his understanding of Galatians 2:15–16 in particular, and of Paul’s general understanding in his other writings as well.

The more traditional or Reformation reading of this passage is well known. The apostle Paul declares in this passage that those who seek to achieve their own righteousness before God are doomed to failure. When Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26, he means to remind his readers that it is impossible to fulfill the law’s demands and that all sinners lie under the curse of God for their failure to do so. Salvation does not come through our obedience to the law, but rather through the work of Christ who became a “curse” for us. Christ, who alone kept the law wholly, has become a curse by suffering the liability of the law on behalf of those who put their trust in him.

The promise of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike comes by faith in Jesus Christ, who suffered the curse of the law in his crucifixion, and not through obedience to the law’s demands. Only through faith in Christ, and not on the basis of works done in obedience to the law, are guilty sinners able to be saved.

Dunn argues that this is a fundamental misreading of the passage. As in Galatians 2:15–16, Paul’s concern is not chiefly about how a guilty sinner can find a gracious God or be saved, but about how God is pleased to acknowledge Gentiles as well as Jews as members of his covenant community. He develops his argument for this interpretation along lines similar to those used in his treatment of Galatians 2:15–16.

1. To understand Paul’s point in this passage, we must recognize that he is “deliberately denying what his fellow countrymen . . . would take for granted.”10 Jews of Paul’s day would understand being “of the works of the law” to mean living in obedience to all that the law requires. Paul denies this understanding and maintains that “[t]o be of the works of the law is not the same as fulfilling the law, is less than what the law requires and so falls under the law’s curse.”11 By the “works of the law,” Paul refers to the Jewish claim that only those who fulfill the law’s ritual requirements (circumcision, food laws, feast days) fall within the scope of God’s covenant promise. The contrast in the passage is not between the law, which Paul continues to affirm in its deeper meaning and demands (compare Romans 2:14–16, 26–29), and faith in Christ. The contrast is between those who regard obedience to the ritual requirements of the law so far as they separate the Jews from the Gentiles, and those who recognize that faith in Christ is the way whereby the promise of inclusion within the covenant is fulfilled. The curse of which Paul speaks in this passage, accordingly, is not some general curse upon all sinners who fail to do what the law demands. It is the particular curse that falls upon Israel when she exhibits a restrictive and nationalistic misunderstanding of the scope of God’s grace.

2. The contrasts in verses 11–12 of this passage (e.g., between “by the law” and “by faith” in verse 11) are not to be interpreted in an absolute way. Paul is not disparaging the idea of “doing the law” as such. He is not arguing that the law and faith are mutually exclusive. Rather, Paul is maintaining that the Judaizers have a misplaced set of priorities. Whereas many of his fellow Jews were emphasizing faithfulness by the standard of the law’s ritual requirements more than faith in Christ, Paul is insisting that faith in Christ is paramount. The call to faith in Christ surpasses Judaism and the legitimate obligations of covenantal nomism. For it is now only by faith in Christ that the promise of the covenant is fulfilled for Jews and Gentiles alike. The relation between Judaism and Christianity is, in this respect, not so much an “either-or” as it is a “bothand,” with the emphasis falling upon the “eschatological life of faith” foreshadowed by Habakkuk 2:4.12

3. The language of verses 13–14, which speak of Christ having redeemed us “from the curse of the law, having become a curse on our behalf,” should not be interpreted in a general sense. Paul is not speaking of a generalized curse or condemnation that every sinner deserves, which Christ vicariously suffered on behalf of his people.

According to Dunn, “[t]he curse of the law here has to do primarily with that attitude which confines the covenant promise to Jews as Jews: it falls on those who live within the law in such a way as to exclude the Gentile as Gentile from the promise.”13 The curse that Christ’s death removes is the curse of a wrong understanding of the law, one which restricts the reach of God’s grace to Jews alone.

Galatians 3:10–14 confirms, then, that Paul’s polemic against the Judaizers and their understanding of the role of the law was not a general polemic against legalism or the law as such. Paul was opposing Jewish exclusivism, the teaching that the covenant community was limited to those who obeyed the ritual demands of the law. Such “works of the law” do not justify, that is, count as badges of covenant membership. The chief badge of covenant membership in these days of the fulfillment of the covenant promise is faith in Christ.

The Doctrine of Justification Redefined

Based upon this understanding of Paul’s view of the “works of the law,” Dunn articulates a very specific understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification. This understanding can best be summarized in the following points.

1. Paul’s doctrine of justification is not addressed to the problem of legalism. The Reformation’s view of justification proceeds from a false assumption, namely, that Paul’s opponents were people who were attempting to find acceptance with God on the basis of their meritorious obedience to the requirements of the law. In the Reformation view, justification answers the question, how can a guilty sinner find acceptance with God? However, the specific problem addressed in Paul’s formulation of the doctrine of justification by faith is the exclusivism of those Jews who insisted upon obedience to the ritual requirements of the law as a prior condition for acceptance into God’s favor and covenant membership.

2. Because Paul’s understanding of justification has its roots in the traditional Jewish idea of God’s “righteousness” as his covenant faithfulness, he uses the language, “to be justified,” to refer to God’s gracious acknowledgment of his covenant people. Though Judaism also taught justification by faith, the Christian gospel fulfills and surpasses Judaism by teaching that God now graciously acknowledges all who believe in Christ as his covenant people. The gospel announces that God in his righteousness has declared that all who believe in Christ, whether Jews or Gentiles, are acceptable to him. Paul teaches that justification is by “faith alone” in the sense that faith in the crucified and risen Christ is now the chief badge of covenant membership.

3. Justification, though it has to do with God’s verdict or pronouncement regarding who he acknowledges as his people, does not involve the kind of legal transaction that the Reformation view envisions. God does not justify believers by granting and imputing to them the righteousness of Christ. The righteousness of God is his covenant faithfulness, not the righteousness of Christ who, by his substitutionary life of obedience and endurance of the law’s curse, obtains God’s favor toward guilty sinners. Dunn has no place in his understanding of the doctrine of justification for the idea that Christ’s “active” and “passive” obedience, which is granted and imputed to those who believe in him, constitutes the basis for their acceptance with God. The death of Christ is not a vicarious or substitutionary atonement, which involved Christ’s suffering the curse of the law against guilty sinners. Rather, it is a “representative” death in which believers share or participate.14

4. Because justification is an act of God’s covenant faithfulness whereby he accepts those who are his people in Christ, it is not, strictly speaking, a “once-for-all-act of God.” The relationship with God that justification declares requires a continual exercise of God’s righteousness. Furthermore, the initial justification of believers is always enacted with a view to God’s final act of judgment and acquittal. Justification, consequently, has several stages in its progressive enactment. It begins with God’s acceptance of the believer, and it ends with God’s vindication of the believer who remains steadfast by the obedience of faith to the end.15

5. Though Dunn embraces the formulation of a justification “by faith alone,” he insists that the “covenantal nomism” of Judaism is not rejected in favor of Paul’s understanding of the gospel of justification. Faith in Christ, though the distinctively Christian badge of covenant membership, is not opposed to the basic requirements of the law of God (e.g., the love commandment, the “law of Christ”). Paul’s understanding of the gospel does not deny but affirms the pattern of religion known as covenantal nomism. Believers are obligated to keep the law in order to confirm and maintain their covenant relationship with God. Without the obedience of faith, there can be no expectation of final vindication by God, since “only the doers of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13).16


1 Among the more important sources for an understanding of Dunn’s view are the following: James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” in Jesus, Paul and the Law. Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1970), pp. 183–215; idem, “Paul and ‘covenantal nomism,’” in The Partings of the Ways Between Christianity and Judaism and their Significance for the Character of Christianity (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), pp. 117–139; idem, “Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law (Galatians 3.10–14),” New Testament Studies 31 (1985): 523–42; idem, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); and idem, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 38a: Romans 1–8, and vol. 38b: Romans 9–16 (Dallas: Word Books, 1988).

2 “The New Perspective,” p. 184.

3 Cf. The Theology of Paul, p. 338. One of the important impulses that necessitates this new view of Judaism, according to Dunn, is the “fundamental issue of Christianity’s relation to Judaism, in particular the relation of Paul’s gospel and theology to his ancestral religion” (p. 338). Dunn believes that it is no longer possible, in a post-Holocaust and post-Vatican II context, to embrace the older Protestant claim that Judaism and catholicism are forms of legalism.

4 “The New Perspective,” p. 188.

5 The Theology of Paul, p. 340.

6 “The New Perspective on Paul,” p. 190.

7 “The New Perspective on Paul,” p. 190. It should be observed that Dunn simply assumes at this point that the “to be justified” means “to be acknowledged as a member of the covenant community.” It is not, as the Reformation commonly understood it, an act whereby God receives a guilty sinner into fellowship with himself on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

8 “The New Perspective,” p. 192.

9 “The New Perspective,” p. 200.

10 “Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law,” p. 534.

11 “Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law,” p. 534.

12 “Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law,” p. 536.

13 “Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law,” p. 536.

14 The Theology of Paul, p. 386. Though this language is rather bland and unclear, it is Dunn’s language. When we take up our evaluation of the new perspective on Paul, we will have to return to this way of viewing Christ’s death, not as a substitutionary but as a representative death. One of the more disconcerting features of the new perspective is the absence of a significant appreciation of Christ’s atoning work in all of its dimensions. This is not surprising, however, since the doctrine of justification is only a reflex of a proper understanding of Christ’s work. The gospel is always the gospel of Christ and the glory of his saving work. So soon as we diminish the problem of sin (as I shall argue the new perspective most emphatically does), we inevitably diminish the accomplishments of the Savior.

15 The Theology of Paul, p. 386.

16 The Theology of Paul, p. 365; “Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law,” p. 535.

Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary and a contributing editor to The Outlook.