Reconsidering Justification with Stephen Westerholm (Book Review)

westerholmIt’s one of the odd quirks of my theological education that the New Perspective on Paul and justification is actually the first perspective on Paul I really heard when I came of age theologically. Yes, I’d grown up with sermon-level understandings of the Old Perspective, but my first book on Paul was N.T. Wright’s What St. Paul Really Said and in seminary I read James Dunn’s 700-page Theology of the Apostle Paul cover to cover in my course on Pauline theology. Add to that numerous follow-up articles and works, not least an overload of Wright (I’ve read most of what he’s written on Paul with the exception of his new volume, which I’m only 1/4 of the way through), and it’s safe to say that I’ve been familiar with the main lines of thought among some of the dominant voices in the New Perspective.

Now, of course, I’ve read some Old Perspective scholars as well. I’ve done a little time with R.B. Gaffin, Simon Gathercole, and D.A. Carson, and my favorite current interpreter of Paul with respect to the justification debates is Michael Bird, something of a Reformed mediating figure. Still, when I ran across Stephen Westerholm’s slim (only 100 pages) little volume Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme I was intrigued, so I took a little break from Wright’s big beast and gave it a go.

What caught my attention was Westerholm’s aim to:

…engage with scholars who have posed fresh questions, and proposed fresh answers regarding the familiar texts in which Paul speaks of justification. Though many of have been convinced by their interpretations, my own reinvigorated reading of Paul has led me, in these particular instances, rather to question the claims of the revisionists; I attempt here to explain why. By now a generation of scholars has arisen for whom the more recent proposals represent the only way of reading Paul to which they have been seriously exposed. I trust they may find, in reading these pages, that older interpreters saw aspects of the texts they have missed, or construed them in ways more faithful to Paul. –pg. vii

In other words, Westerholm is looking to register a bit of a minority report on the justification conversation and argue for the viability of older views on certain questions in the face of a somewhat “settled” consensus, or dealing with controversial but influential views in modern scholarship. In essence, it’s a streamlining and update of his earlier work Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics

To do so, he write six chapters, each dealing with a key issue up for grabs in the debate, while focusing on a representative or key scholar whose writings influence the discussion, and, of course, a rigorous analysis of the main texts in question.

  • Chapter 1: In the first chapter, he challenges Krister Stendahl’s contention that modern interpreter’s have been too long in the hold of Western societies quest to find a “gracious God”, instead of focusing on the real issue for Paul, table fellowship between Jew and Gentile.
  • Chapter 2: From there he moves on to modify on E.P. Sanders’ thesis about grace and works in Judaism, arguing that he’s offered a helpful corrective against the notion of “legalistic” Judaism, but has nonetheless confused Paul’s fundamental argument about grace and works.
  • Chapter 3: Westerholm then engages in a discussion about Pauline anthropology focused on Heiki Raisanen’s thesis that Paul is a bit inconsistent about whether humans can or cannot do good.
  • Chapter 4: From there, in one of the longer chapters in the book, N.T. Wright comes under fire with respect to the language of “righteousness” and “justification.” Westerholm argues essentially that he has unjustifiably restricted it to covenant duties and inclusion, instead of a broader concept of righteousness as “doing what one ought to do”, and corresponding notion of justification as acquittal.
  • Chapter 5: Wright’s buddy James Dunn figures prominently in chapter five as Westerholm seeks to establish the meaning of the phrase “works of the Law” as meaning more than just “boundary markers” keeping Jews and Gentiles apart in their little air-tight spaces.
  • Chapter 6: Finally, in a brief little chapter before the summary conclusion, he touches on Douglas Campbell’s controversial critique of “justification theory”, taking issue with his Neo-Marcionite split between a God of justice and a God of deliverance.

Now, given this brief outline of the chapters, it would be an understandable mistake to suppose Westerholm is simply trying to repristinate Pauline theology from about 50 years ago, or 500 years ago for that matter. It would be a mistake nonetheless. Westerholm takes on a number of the insights of the last 50 years of Pauline scholarship in order to nuance and fill out the Old perspective, in which case, you shouldn’t expect a simple rehash of Luther or Calvin.

Highlights – While the whole thing is worth a perusal, for my money the strongest chapters were the first couple of chapters on the “peril of modernizing Paul”, Judaism and grace, and Pauline anthropology. For example, in pushing back on Stendahl’s idea that the Western focus on “finding a gracious God” is a modernizing distortion, among other points, Westerholm points us to Paul’s earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, which has no mention of justification or the issue of table-fellowship. Right in the first chapter, Paul describes the conversion of the Gentiles thus: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:9-10). Through some convincing analysis of this text, among others, Westerholm makes that case that for denizens of ancient Gentile culture used to looking for ways to avert the wrath of the gods, it seems eminently reasonable that the opportunity to find a gracious God through Christ would have been quite appealing. They wouldn’t have been to worried about getting into the Jewish covenant, but the desire for reconciliation makes all sorts of sense. In fact, he pushes further to argue that those who would sideline this “vertical” concern in order to focus on the “horizontal” one, are, in fact, in peril of modernizing Paul themselves.

Quibbles – Of course, I did have a number of quibbles. For instance, against Wright, he definitely makes the case that we can’t reduce righteousness to strict covenant keeping, or covenant-faithfulness. That said, he goes too far when he sets it off from the covenant almost entirely. Westerholm wants us to see keeping covenant obligations as simply one instance of righteousness, or “doing what one ought to do”, instead of the instance par excellence that gives the specific shape that informs the biblical account as a whole. Also, he completely denies the idea that justification has anything to do with covenant inclusion. This is probably linked to my chief frustration, which is that he basically ignored the place of union with Christ, a key element to understanding the relationship between justification and covenant (see Horton or, especially Bird here.) A further issue that probably plays into this is Westerholm’s repeated emphasis on the fact that justification is but one metaphor among many for salvation in Paul. Given that, it makes sense that he makes less of an attempt to work out the connection between covenant and justification. I also, would have liked to see more engagement with Campbell’s volume as that final chapter ends up being a bit of a tease.

Still, that said, it’s a helpful little volume. For those looking to to engage Paul’s gospel of justification from all perspectives, Westerholm’s work is a great place to start–or reconsider–your studies. 

Soli Deo Gloria

3 thoughts on “Reconsidering Justification with Stephen Westerholm (Book Review)

  1. Pingback: Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift” According to Barclay W/ A Couple Of Notes | Reformedish

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